[Mr. Elich is a freelance scholar who has written extensively about Yugoslavia.]
In early August 1995, the Croatian invasion of Serbian Krajina precipitated the worst refugee crisis of the Yugoslav civil war. Within days, more than two hundred thousand Serbs, virtually the entire population of Krajina, fled their homes, and 14,000 Serbian civilians lost them lives. According to a UN official “Almost the only people remaining were the dead and the dying.” The Clinton administration’s support for the invasion was an important factor in creating this nightmare.
The previous month, Secretary of State Warren Christopher and German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel met with Croatian diplomat Miomir Zuzul in London. During this meeting, Christopher gave his approval for Croatian military action against Serbs in Bosnia and Krajina. Two days later, the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, also approved Croatia’s invasion plan. Stipe Mesic, a prominent Croatian politician, stated that Croatian President Franjo Tudjman “received the go-ahead from the United States. Tudjman can do only what the Americans allow him to do. Krajina is the reward for having accepted, under Washington’s pressure, the federation between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia.” Croatian assembly deputy Mate Mestrovic also claimed that the “United States gave us the green light to do whatever had to be done.” (1)
As Croatian troops launched their assault on August 4, U.S. NATO aircraft destroyed Serbian radar and anti-aircraft defenses. American EA-6B electronic warfare aircraft patrolled the air in support of the invasion. Krajina foreign affairs advisor Slobodan Jarcevic stated that NATO “completely led and coordinated the entire Croat offensive by first destroying radar and anti-aircraft batteries. What NATO did most for the Croatian Army was to jam communications between [Serb] military commands….” (2)
Following the elimination of Serbian anti-aircraft defenses, Croatian planes carried out extensive attacks on Serbian towns and positions. The roads were clogged with refugees, and Croatian aircraft bombed and strafed refugee columns. Serbian refugees passing through the town of Sisak were met by a mob of Croatian extremists, who hurled rocks and concrete at them. A UN spokesman said, “The windows of almost every vehicle were smashed and almost every person was bleeding from being hit by some object.” Serbian refugees were pulled from their vehicles and beaten. As fleeing Serbian civilians poured into Bosnia, a Red Cross representative in Banja Luka said, “I’ve never seen anything like it. People are arriving at a terrifying rate.” Bosnian Muslim troops crossed the border and cut off Serbian escape routes. Trapped refugees were massacred as they were pounded by Croatian and Muslim artillery. Nearly 1,700 refugees simply vanished. While Croatian and Muslim troops burned Serbian villages, President Clinton expressed his understanding for the invasion, and Christopher said events “could work to our advantage.” (3)
The Croatian rampage through the region left a trail of devastation. Croatian special police units, operating under the Ministry of Internal Affairs, systematically looted abandoned Serbian villages. Everything of value – cars, stereos, televisions, furniture, farm animals – was plundered, and homes set afire. (4) A confidential European Union report stated that 73 percent of Serbian homes were destroyed. (5) Troops of the Croatian army also took part, and pro-Nazi graffiti could be seen on the walls of several burnt-out Serb buildings.(6)
Massacres continued for several weeks after the fall of Krajina, and UN patrols discovered numerous fresh unmarked graves and bodies of murdered civilians. (7) The European Union report states, “Evidence of atrocities, an average of six corpses per day, continues to emerge. The corpses, some fresh, some decomposed, are mainly of old men. Many have been shot in the back of the head or had throats slit, others have been mutilated… Serb lands continue to be torched and looted.” (8)
Following a visit in the region a member of the Zagreb Helsinki Committee reported, “Virtually all Serb villages had been destroyed…. In a village near Knin, eleven bodies were found, some of them were massacred in such a way that it was not easy to see whether the body was male or female.” (9)
UN spokesman Chris Gunness noted that UN personnel continued to discover bodies, many of whom had been decapitated. (10) British journalist Robert Fisk reported the murder of elderly Serbs, many of whom were burned alive in their homes. He adds, “At Golubic, UN officers have found the decomposing remains of five people… the head of one of the victims was found 150 feet from his body. Another UN team, meanwhile is investigating the killing of a man and a woman in the same area after villagers described how the man’s ears and nose had been mutilated.” (11)
After the fall of Krajina, Croatian chief of staff General Zvonimir Cervenko characterized Serbs as “medieval shepherds, troglodytes, destroyers of anything the culture of man has created.” During a triumphalist train journey through Croatia and Krajina, Tudjman spoke at each railway station. To great applause, he announced, “There can be no return to the past, to the times when [Serbs] were spreading cancer in the heart of Croatia, a cancer that was destroying the Croatian national being.” He then went on to speak of the “ignominious disappearance” of the Serbs from Krajina “so it is as if they have never lived here… They didn’t even have time to take with them their filthy money or their filthy underwear!” American ambassador Peter Galbraith dismissed claims that Croatia had engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” since he defined this term as something Serbs do. (12)
U.S. representatives blocked Russian attempts to pass a UN Security Council resolution condemning the invasion. According to Croatian Foreign Minister Mate Granic, American officials gave advice on the conduct of the operation, and European and military experts and humanitarian aid workers reported shipments of U.S weapons to Croatia over the two months preceding the invasion. A French mercenary also witnessed the arrival of American and German weapons at a Croatian port, adding, “The best of the Croats’ armaments were German- and American-made.” The U.S. “directly or indirectly,” says French intelligence analyst Pierre Hassner, “rearmed the Croats.” Analysts at Jane’s Information Group say that Croatian troops were seen wearing American uniforms and carrying U S. communications equipment. (13)
The invasion of Krajina was preceded by a thorough CIA and DIA analysis of the region. (14) According to Balkan specialist Ivo Banac, this “tactical and intelligence support” was furnished to the Croatian Army at the beginning of its offensive. (15)
In November 1994, the United States and Croatia signed a military agreement. Immediately afterward, U.S. intelligence agents set up an operations center on the Adriatic island of Brac, from which reconnaissance aircraft were launched. Two months earlier, the Pentagon contracted Military Professional Resources, Inc (MPRI) to train the Croatian military.(16) According to a Croatian officer, MPRI advisors “lecture us on tactics and big war operations on the level of brigades, which is why we needed them for Operation Storm when we took the Krajina.” Croatian sources claim that U.S. satellite intelligence was furnished to the Croatian military. (17) Following the invasion of Krajina, the U.S. rewarded Croatia with an agreement “broadening existing cooperation” between MPRI and the Croatian military. (18) U.S. advisors assisted in the reorganization of the Croatian Army. Referring to this reorganization in an interview with the newspaper Vecernji List, Croatian General Tihomir Blaskic said, “We are building the foundations of our organization on the traditions of the Croatian home guard” – pro-Nazi troops in World War II. (19)
It is worth examining the nature of what one UN official terms “America’s newest ally.” During World War II, Croatia was a Nazi puppet state in which the Croatian fascist Ustashe murdered as many as one million Serbs, Jews, and Roman (Gypsies). Disturbing signs emerged with the election of Franjo Tudjman to the Croatian presidency in 1990 Tudjman said, “I am glad my wife is neither Serb nor Jew,” and wrote that accounts of the Holocaust were “exaggerated” and “one-sided.” (20)
Much of Tudjman’s financial backing was provided by Ustashe émigrés and several Ustashe war criminals were invited to attend the first convention of Tudjman’s political party, the Croatian Democratic Union. (21)
Tudjman presented a medal to a former Ustashe commander living in Argentina, Ivo Rojnica. After Rojnica was quoted as saying, “Everything I did in 1941 I would do again,” international pressure prevented Tudjman from appointing him to the post of ambassador to Argentina. When former Ustashe official Vinko Nikolic returned to Croatia, Tudjman appointed him to a seat in parliament. Upon former Ustashe officer Mate Sarlija’s return to Croatia, he was personally welcomed at the airport by Defense Minister Gojko Susak, and subsequently given the post of general in the Croatian Army. (22) On November 4, 1996, thirteen former Ustashe officers were presented with medals and ranks in the Croatian Army. (23)
Croatia adopted a new currency in 1994, the kuna, the same name as that used by the Ustashe state, and the new Croatian flag is a near-duplicate of the Ustashe flag. Streets and buildings have been renamed for Ustashe official Mile Budak, who signed the regime’s anti-Semitic laws, and more than three thousand anti-fascist monuments have been demolished. In an open letter, the Croatian Jewish community protested the rehabilitation of the Ustashe state. In April 1994, the Croatian government demanded the removal of all “non-white” UN troops from its territory, claiming that “only first-world troops” understood Croatia’s “problems.” (24)
On Croatian television in April 1996, Tudjman called for the return of the remains of Ante Pavelic, the leader of the Croatian pro-Nazi puppet state “After all, both reconciliation and recognition should be granted to those who deserve it,” Tudjman said, adding, “We should recognize that Pavelic’s ideas about the Croatian state were positive,” but that Pavelic’s only mistake was the murder of a few of his colleagues and nationalist allies. (25) Three months later, Tudjman said of the Serbs driven from Croatia “The fact that 90 percent of them left is their own problem… Naturally we are not going to allow them all to return.” During the same speech, Tudjman referred to the pro-Nazi state as “a positive thing.” (26)
During its violent secession from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatia expelled more than three hundred thousand Serbs, and Serbs were eliminated from ten towns and 183 villages. (27) In 1993, Helsinki Watch reported: “Since 1991 the Croatian authorities have blown up or razed ten thousand houses mostly of Serbs, but also houses of Croats. In some cases, they dynamited homes with the families inside.” Thousands of Serbs have been evicted from their homes. Croatian human-rights activist Ivan Zvonimir Cicak says beatings, plundering, and arrests were the usual eviction methods. (28)
Tomislav Mercep, until recently the advisor to the Interior minister and a member of Parliament, is a death-squad leader. Mercep’s death squad murdered 2,500 Serbs in western Slavonia in 1991 and 1992, actions Mercep defends as “heroic deeds.” (29) Death squad officer Miro Bajramovic’s spectacular confession revealed details: “Nights were worst for [our prisoners]… burning prisoners with a flame, pouring vinegar over their wounds mostly on genitalia and on the eyes. Then there is that little induction field phone, you plug a Serb onto that… The most painful is to stick little pins under the nails and to connect to the three phase current; nothing remains of a man but ashes… After all, we knew they would all be killed, so it did not matter if we hurt him more today or tomorrow.”
“Mercep knew everything,” Bajramovic claimed. “He told us several times: ‘Tonight you have to clean all these shits.’ By this he meant all the prisoners should be executed.” (30)
Sadly, the Clinton administration’s embrace of Croatia follows a history of support for fascists when it suits American geopolitical interests: Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Indonesia’s Suharto, Paraguay’s Aifredo Stroessner, and a host of others. The consequences of this policy for the people affected have been devastating.
1) “Weekly: U.S. Gave Zagreb ‘Green Light,’ ” Tanjug (Belgrade), 26 July 1995. “In Croatia, U.S. Took Calculated Risk,” Stephen Engelberg, New York Times News Service, 12 August 1995. “Cleansing the West’s Dirty War,” Joan Phillips, Living Marxism (London), September 1995. “Who Has Given the Go-Ahead?,” interview with Stipe Mesic, Panorama (Milan), 8 August 1995. “The United States Gave Us the Green Light,” interview with Mate Mestrovic, by Chantal de Rudder, Le Nouvel Observateur (Paris), 10 August 1995.
(2) “International Inaction in Croatia Will Complicate Bosnian War,” George Jahn, Associated Press, 7 August 1995. “NATO Destroyed Krajina Missile Systems,” Bosnian Serb News Agency (SRNA) (Belgrade), 6 August 1995. “Abandoned People Must Flee,” interview with Slobodan Jarcevic by Cvijeta Arsenic, Oslobodjenje (Sarajevo—Bosnian Serb), 23 August 1995.”Cleansing the West’s Dirty War,” Joan Phillips, op. cit.
(3) “Huge Refugee Exodus Runs Into Shelling, Shooting, Air Attacks,” George Jahn, Associated Press, 8 August 1995. “Croat Planes Shell Refugees,” Tanjug, 8 August 1995. “SRNA Review of Daily News,” SRNA, 8 August 1995. “Cleansing the West’s Dirty War,” Joan Phillips, op. cit. “Refugees Trapped by Croat Shelling,” Robert Fox and Tim Judah, Electronic Telegraph (London) (Online), 8 August 1995. “Croat Mob Attacks Nuns in Fleeing Convoy,” Patrick Bishop, Electronic Telegraph, 11 August 1995. “Over 1,000 Serbs Missing in Krajina,” Tanjug, 28 January 1997. “Croat Grip Is Tightened as 100,000 Flee,” Tim Butcher, Electronic Telegraph, 7 August 1995.
(4) “UN Says Croatians Loot, Use Peacekeepers as Shields,” Associated Press, 6 August 1995. “Helsinki Committee Reports on Krajina Operations,” Hartmut Fiedler, Oesterreich Eins Radio Network, 21 August 1995. “EU Observers Accuse Croatia of Breaches of Law,” Tanjug, 27 October 1995. “UN: Croatians Systematically Burned Serb Homes,” Tanjug, 14 August 1995. “Croats Slaughter Elderly by the Dozen,” Robert Fisk, The Independent (London), 10 September 1995. “Croats Plunder Their Way through Krajina,” Mon Vanderostyne, De Standard (Groot Bijgaarden, The Netherlands), 9 August 1995. “UN Says Croats Loot Serb Villages in Krajina,” Agence France-Presse, 17 August 1995. “EU Report Accuses Croatia of Atrocities Against Rebel Serbs,” Julian Borger, The Guardian (Manchester), 30 September 1995. “Krajina ‘Torched State,’ ” SRNA, 21 August 1995. “What Was Once Home to 300 Families Is Now a Graveyard,” Sarah Helm, The Independent, 24 August 1995. “Helsinki Committee Chronicles Human Rights Abuses,” Tanjug, 28 August 1995. “Memorandum on the Ethnic Cleansing of and Genocide Against the Serb People of Croatia and Krajina,” Yugoslav Survey, third quarter, 1995.
(5) “Krajina Bears Signs of Croat Ethnic Cleansing,” Randolph Ryan, Boston Globe, 8 October 1995. “UN Official Confirms Croatian Crimes in Krajina,” Tanjug, 13 October 1995.
(6)”Krajina Bears Signs of Croat Ethnic Cleansing,” Randolph Ryan, op.cit
(7) “Croats Burn and Kill with a Vengeance,” Robert Fisk, The
Independent, 4 September 1995. “Croats Leave Bloody Trail of Serbian Dead,” Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times, 9n October 1995. “Reports Say Croatia Uses Killing, Arson,” John Pomfret,
Washington Post, 30 September 1995. “UN Asks for Inquiry into Krajina Killings,” Reuters, 18 August 1995. “EU Observers Accuse Croatia of Breaches of Law,” op. cit. “UN Finds Evidence of Mass Killings in Croatia,” Reuters, 2 October 1995. “Croats Slaughter Elderly by the Dozen,” Robert Fisk, op. cit. “EU Report Accuses Croatia of Atrocities Against Rebel Serbs,” Julian Borger, op.cit. “UN: Executions, Possible Mass Graves in Krajina,” Agence
France-Presse, 18 August 1995. “Helsinki Committee Chronicles Human Rights Abuses,” op cit. “Evidence Emerging of Crimes Against Krajina Serbs,” Tanjug, 30 August 1995. “Croats Accused of Atrocities,” Associated Press, 29 September 1995.
(8) “Croats Burn and Kill With a Vengeance,” Robert Fisk, op.cit.”EU Report Accuses Croatia of Atrocities Against Rebel Serbs, ” Julian Borger, op. cit. report broadcast, RTBF-1 Television Network (Brussels), 20 August 1995. “Memorandum on the Ethnic Cleansing of and Genocide Against the Serb People of Croatia and Krajina,” Yugoslav Survey, third quarter, 1995.
(9) “Krajina Operation: Helsinki Committee Member Describes Atrocities in Krajina,” BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 25 August 1995.
10) “UN Asks for Inquiry into Krajina Killings,” op.cit. “UN Finds Evidence of Mass Killings in Croatia,” op. cit. “UN: Executions, Possible Mass Graves in Krajina,” op. cit.
(11) “Croats Slaughter Elderly by the Dozen,” Robert Fisk, op. cit.(12) “Croats Ready for a Fresh Offense Against Serbs,” Patrick Bishop, Electronic Telegraph, 16 August 1995. addresses by Franjo Tudjman, Radio Croatia Network, 26 August 1995. “U.S. Says Croatia is Not Guilty of Ethnic Cleansing,” Patrick Moore, Open Media Research Institute, 10 August 1995.
(13) “Croatian Minister Says U.S. Gave Advice on Offensive,” Jasmina Kuzmanovic, Associated Press, 5 August 1995. “Croatia Takes Effective Control of What’s Left of Bosnia,” San Francisco Chronicle, 11 August 1995.
(14) “NATO in Dubrovnik,” Vladimir Jovanovic, Monitor (Podgorica, Yugoslavia), 23 June 1995.
(15) “AP Report on U.S. Peace Strategy,” Associated Press, 13 November 1995.
(16) “AP Report on U.S. Peace Strategy,” Associated Press, op cit.” U.S. Troops Operate in Croatia,” Associated Press, 3 February
(17) “Invisible U.S. Army Defeats Serbs,” Charlotte Eagar, The
Observer (London), 5November 1995.
(18) “Military Cooperation Agreement Signed with U.S.” HTV Television (Zagreb) 13 October 1995.
(19) “We Can Prevent Any Serbian Maneuver,” interview with Tihomir Blaskic, by Jozo Pavkovic, Vecernji List (Zagreb), 11 March 1995.
20) “Croatian Leader’s Invitation to Holocaust Museum Sparks Anger and Shock,” Diana Jean Schemo, New York Times News Service, 21 April 1993.
(21) “Croatia, at a Key Strategic Crossroad, Builds Militarily and Geographically,” Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy (London), 31 January 1993. “Who is Franjo Tudjman?” Narodna Armija (Belgrade), 1 March 1990.
(22) “Criticism of Tudjman Award to Ustashe,” Foreign Broadcast Information Service Media Note (Media Summary), 27 January 1995. “Nationalism Turns Sour in Croatia,” New York Times News Service, 13 November 1993. “Plan to Honour Ustashe Killers Outrages Minorities in Croatia,” Ian Traynor, The Guardian, 18 October 1993. “Trpimir for an Executioner and a Victim,” Mirko Mirkovic, Feral Tribune (Split, Croatia), 20 February 1995. “Croatian General Former Ustashe,” Tanjug, 26 February 1995.
(23) “Croatia Grants Awards to Nazi-Era War Veterans,” Reuters, 7 November 1996.
(24) “New Croatian Money Anathema to Serbs,” John Pomfret, Washington Post, 31 May 1994. “Plan to Honour Ustashe Killers Outrages Minorities in Croatia,” Ian Traynor, op.cit. “Pro-Nazi Legacy Lingers for Croatia,” Stephen Kinzer, New York Times News Service, 30 October 1993. “Monument to Anti-Fascism Desecrated in Croatia,” Tanjug, February 1995. “Another Anti-Fascist Monument Blown Up in Croatia,” Tanjug, 11 April 1995. “Croatia, Symbols of Crimes,” Miodrag Dundjerovic, Tanjug, 1 June 1994. “Croatia Adopts New Currency Recalling Fascist Era,” Reuters, 9 May 1994. “Hiding Genocide,” Gregory Copley, Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy, 31 December 1992. “Croatia is Rehabilitating Ustashism and the Independent State of Croatia,” Politika (Belgrade), 12 February 1993. “Tudjman Calls for All-White Peace Force in Croatia,” Eve Ann Prentice, The Times (London), 11 April 1995. “Croatia to Seek Expulsion of Non-White U.N. Troops,” Tanjug, 10 April 1995.
(25) Interview with Franjo Tudjman, HTV Television (Zagreb), 22 April 1996.
(26) Address by Franjo Tudjman to the Croatian World Congress in Brioni, Radio Croatia Network (Zagreb), 6 July 1996.
(27) “Croatian Towns, Villages Cleansed of Serbs,” Tanjug, 26 January 1993. “Savovic: Croatia Expelled 300,000 Serb,” Tanjug, 5 November1993 “Serb Party Official: 350,000 Serbs Driven Out.” Tanjug, 26 August 1994.
(28) “Croatian Police Tactics Cited,” Associated Press, 3 October 1994. “Helsinki Committee Chair: Collective Vendetta Against Croatia’s Serbs,” Tanjug, 7 may 1994. “Protests Prevent Latest Wave of Croatian Apartment Evictions,” Radio Free Europe, 12 July 1994. “Croatian Human Rights Activist: Zagreb Backs Human Rights Violations,” Tanjug, 28 September 1994. “Rights Groups Report Abuses by Croatia,” David Binder, New York Times News Service, 7 December 1993.
29) “Interior Minister Aide Accused of War Crimes,” ZDF Television Network (Mainz), 17 May 1994. “Slovene Daily Says Croatian Leaders Keep Quiet About Massacre of Serbs,” Tanjug, 14 January 1994. “Croatian Paper Calls Mass Killings of Serbs a National Disgrace,” Tanjug, 12 July 1994. “Zagreb Knows About Mass Killings of Serbs,” Tanjug, 23 July 1994. “Dossier: Pakracka Poljana,” Feral Tribune (Split, Croatia), 1 September 1997. “Death Camps and Mass Graves in Western Slavonia: Marino Selo and Pakracka Poljana,” dossier prepared by Serbian Council, Belgrade, 1993.
(30) “Miro Bajramovic’s Confession,” Feral Tribune (Split, Croatia), 1 September 1997. “Croatian’s Confession Describes Torture and Killing on Vast Scale,” Chris Hedges, New York Times, 5 September 1997.