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A couple of days ago, the two former members of the Croatian military won a “not guilty” sentence in the Hague international war crime tribunal.
I was not present in the general headquarters of the Croatian army while they were deciding on their “Operation Storm” action of 1995. I don’t know if the telephone rang there. I also don’t know if President Bill Clinton personally told them to go ahead with the largest land offensive since World War II, because the CIA would help. That is what certain Serbian newspapers published recently.
I have a remarkable lack of knowledge about world paramilitary conspiracies, secret chambers in the Vatican, mysterious double-agents doing their jobs badly… Generally, the things I know are in the public domain, because people said these things publicly and I took notes, or because I was just personally standing there.
Consider those days in August 1995, when that “Operation Storm” took place. I stood at the border between Croatia and Serbia, watching the endless caravan of people fleeing on truckbeds, in their cars, on foot, in nightgowns, in torn Serbian uniforms, with guns and babies. I talked to those people. I took photos: I personally saw newborn refugees carried in shoe boxes, babies who were born during the exodus of ethnic Serbs fleeing the Croatian army.
I saw angry Serbian soldiers tearing off their military insignia because they were given orders by their military to abandon the region without fighting. I also saw people being given food and shelter by the local Serbian population. I heard the refugee stumbling towards an unknown destiny, since they had lost everything.
Operation Storm put a swift and sudden end in to four years of fighting for Serbian autonomy inside Croatia. The plans for a Greater Serbia torn from the fabric of Yugoslavia had been crushed by 150,000 Croatian Army troops. I heard the fleeing Serbs saying how rich and happy they had been in their rural homes. They had Croatian accents — if you ask me, that is, a woman with a Belgrade accent. They’d been born in Croatia of a people established there for centuries, but they were keenly aware of being Serbian Orthodox non-Catholic non-Croats.
They rejected a Croatian identity and passport, preferring their own rules and ideas. Their most important aspiration was to live within the Greater Serbia promised to them by Milosevic and his generals. Some were kissing the Serbian flag and the picture of Milosevic. Most of them were tearing the flag and swearing at the broken promises and the reeling military defeat of their beloved leader.
Later, I saw the endless caravan of Krajina refugees being routed by the Serbian police outside Belgrade. Only those Serbs who had relatives in the capital were allowed enter the city. Naturally scarcely any of them could prove that. People within Belgrade did not see or hear the refugees, except for what the official Milosevic tv or radio allowed. Of course that was a thoroughly censored version of events.
I don’t know where those people ended up. Their exact number is vague, it varies in the telling, from two hundred thousand to half a million displaced ethnic refugees.