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The Serb minority's situation in Croatia
17 years after the war broke out

International peace-prevention and Croatian nationalism in perspective



Jan Oberg

January 1, 2008

The first shot in the Yugoslav dissolution drama was fired in the beautiful hilly landscape of Western Slavonia, Croatia, a good 100 kilometres from the capital, Zagreb. It was in 1991 and TFF and its conflict-mitigation teams made friends with the leading Serb in the country then. His name is Veljko Dzakula and he remains one of the most impressive we ever met in ex-Yugoslavia. Of course you have not heard of him; the media have told you  only about Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic.

I met him in the small village of Gavrinica in the outskirts of Pakrac in the office of the Serb Democratic Forum (SDF) - with an English summary here - that he has been the leader of ever since. He has remained who he was -­ an effective, spirited worker for non-violent change, a man with amazing civil courage and vision, soft appearance, warm eyes and a good smile. And he still does not handle modern technology, speaks too little English for a conversation and feels quite isolated even though he has, over the years, been one of the most important interlocutors of international NGOs and diplomats.

Our two-hour conversation this Sunday morning in August brings back memories of the horrors TFF’s team members and I myself witnessed during our repeated visits in the war years. I revisited all the propaganda, the negotiations at the checkpoint at the central square of Pakrac and the trips through thick forests and creeks over to the Serb side – memories of nationalists, para-militaries, thugs and drunken soldiers, not to speak of the thick atmosphere of fear and hatred.


Main square in Pakrac, Western Slavonia, Croatia 2008
© Jan Oberg 2008


It confirmed my hypothesis at the time that Serbs would be the net losers should Yugoslavia fall apart. And that Milosevic was a terrible bad representative of them all, except the few leading crooks and criminals ­ to which Veljko never belonged. As a matter of fact the UN and organizations like TFF protected him since there were attempts on his life by both Croatia and Serbia.

When in June 1995 I met Milosevic and gave him a few background papers, one of which held Veljko’s name, he pretended to not know who he was and asked me. I said, “Mr. President, he is the most decent and best leader of the Serbs in Croatia.” Just a few days before, Milosevic’ “security” thugs had poisoned him in Belgrade and made him unconscious and then driven him into a dark wood where he was dumped. Just as a warning.

Milosevic thought that Milan Babic, Goran Hadzic and Milan Martic and their murky friends were the right puppets and fit to represent the Serbs throughout Croatia and fight the semi-fascist policies of President Dr. Franjo Tudjman with means just mirroring his.

What human folly, what cruelty and stupidity!

Western media at the time never bothered to understand it otherwise: there could be no "good" Serbs or Serbs who who suffered and were victims. Because “the Serbs” were the perpetrators. Martti Ahtisaari who received the Nobel Peace Prize 2008 (in defiance of Nobels will) recently talked about the collective guilt of the Serb nation, revealing thereby an amazing lack of understanding of the complexities of the wider Yugoslav drama and the complicity in the crimes of his friends in the West.

I find the SDF office in a small grey house at Osjecka 2, the walls of which are still full of bullet holes from 17 years ago. Veljko has witnessed virtually all types of inhumanity and absurdity, including the lack of principles by the so-called international community. He looks like he did during the war years where he moved from one house to another virtually every night; he tells me jokingly that he himself now lives safely in “Flash Street”.

Flash was the code word for the largest ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia, name the Flash and Storm operations by the Croatian Army in August 1995, made possible by the United States training, equipment, advisers, recognition and intelligence gathering under then ambassador Peter W. Galbraith who subsequently became a human rights champion for the Kurdish nation and a dis-armament and arms control advocate....

Well, what an ironic name for a street here; the EU and NATO ­ so eager to prove themselves right in what they mistakenly did in the 1990s ­ have deliberately turned the blind eye to Croatia’s contemporary nationalism which is second to none in Europe article and to such mind-boggling facts that the ethnic cleansing of Flash and Storm is celebrated as a national holiday! For more please see two other articles of mine here and here.
Osjecka 2 is situated right across from the old churchyard, or what remains of it. It too was -­ like virtually all the rest of the village - destroyed by various armies, paramilitaries, thugs and mad men.


The Orthodox church in Gavrinica, Pakrac, 2008
© Jan Oberg 2008


Detail from the Catholic church in Pakrac 2008
© Jan Oberg 2008

Velko is a peace lord ­ totally missed media that are only, self righteously, interested in covering warlords. After all, how can you sell Western policies as good, if you don’t focus on the bad guys? It would have been much more constructive for the international community to have supported the Dzakulas of the Yugoslav and other dramas ­ because they represent some 99% of the locals ­ but, then, how would you have sold your weapons and tested your pilots and planes in real time and place?

About 250.000 innocent Serb farmers and others (mind you, not occupiers but Croatian citizens whose crime was that they were Serbs having lived there for about 400 years) were forced out during Operations Storm and Flash and so was, by the way, the four UN peace-keeping missions. Nobody knows how many have returned but maximum about 10% of them.

Tudjman was “our-son-of-a-bitch” so he remained at large (and conveniently died in cancer) in spite of Flash and Storm and other crimes. Milosevic died in his Hague Tribunal prison cell for having done less crimes than that in Kosovo. Indeed, I wonder, how much better it would have been for all in today’s Croatia if the international so-called community had treated the Serb minority there with the same solidarity as the Bosnian Moslems and Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia? Or at least had distanced themselves from and or punished Tudjman’s cruelties proportionately with Milosevic’?


From a churchyard in Vukovar, Eastern Slavonia, Croatia 2008
© Jan Oberg 2008

Gavrinica and neighbouring Japaga is now populated by very very old people only, mostly having found refuge after their lives became impossible on the other side of the border in Bosnia. It’s nice of the Croatian authorities to provide a little money for construction or re-construction, but if you are alone and 70+ and have lost most of what you owned and of your family members it’s not an easy life. But it serves its function: to prevent the rightful owners to ever return.

And there is little to do here. Below I provide some pictures so you can see how little independent Croatia has done to rebuild this area. If you needed to shoot a movie with war zone action, it is all freely available here in Croatia ­ in Lipik, Vukovar, the Knin area, Kordun, Lika, Glina - the latter still standing as a first-class ghost town.


Wartime ruin in Pakrac 2008
© Jan Oberg 2008


Franjo Tudjman memorial park in Pakrac 2008
- just opposite the ruin above

© Jan Oberg 2008

There seems to be no efforts to get the wheels spinning here again. And Croatia is not unable to, but does its leadership want to heal the wounds and develop all parts of the country?

- If it was’t for the tourist industry along the coast and in Zagreb, most of Croatia would look like Pakrac, Japaga or Glina, Veljko says sarcastically. Eastern and Western Slavonia is treated as a backyard in spite of its tremendous potential for agriculture and other developments. It doesn’t work half as well as in old Yugoslavia, he adds.

And in Pakrac there is an invisible border still between the centre itself and historically Serb-majority villages such as Japaga. A Serb does not drink a coffee at a Croatian owned café; you merely tolerate each other.

Younger returnees live basically on some social welfare of a symbolic amount and on parents’ pensions. Lela, Veljko’s assistant who is a Bosnian Muslim who feels and thinks like a Serb, she says - tells me that she does not understand how the few younger people manage around here, particularly if they have children.

Remarkably, Croatia itself has paid only about 10% of the reconstruction. Remember, officially it was Milosevic and only “the Serbs” who wrought destruction on Croatia. The rest of the assistance has come from the UNHCR, USAID, etc. And it is many years ago that the UN left and virtually all the international NGOs too.


Everything is cheap in this Chinese shop.
Few can afford anything but the cheapest today.
Pakrac 2008

© Jan Oberg 2008


Veljko and the SDF are situated in a complex political structure. By definition, he must see the Croatian nationalist government and leading party as an impediment or opponent. The three Serbs in Croatia’s parliament (Zabor) are, he says, of no use to the Serb minority; they are only interested in power and they know the games played; he mentions scores of cases where someone is qualified for a job in government or municipalities but doesn’t get the job because he or she is a Serb; they find it best to accept that sort of thing. He finds the thesis that power corrupts overwhelming confirmed among his own kin. He proudly tells that SDF is about to publish a report on the situation in Serb communities, signed by leading Croat- intellectuals and journalists in Croatia as well as others in Bosnia, Republika Srpska, Serbia, etc.; it will be sent to all Presidents and interior ministers in Europe. Veljko knows how important it is to build bridges beyond your own group. And I wonder to myself whether Mr. Solana and his likes in the EU will ever get his message?

- There will be repercussions and they will say I am an extremist. But neither I nor the SDF is alone; on the contrary, time speaks for us and it is a part of our strategy to build bridges to everyone, no matter their nationality or background. The situation of Serbs here will eventually appeal to human rights organizations worldwide and to everyone else with a human heart. And there are enough documented cases, go to our website, see our reports!

The Zabor Serbs consider him far too outspoken and critical of development ­ probably as a challenge too since the SDF is well-organized throughout the country. He has always cultivated relations with Belgrade and today considers President Tadic a sign of hope. A number of foreign embassies listen to him because of his determination and vision and because the SDF is independent and does constructive work. So neither he himself nor SDF is without important contacts, even support. No, it is the entire structure of modern Croatia that makes him come across as a contemporary Sisyphus.

- No politician in this country has any vision, except joining the EU and NATO as fast as possible. The idea that we have to fend for ourselves, heal the wounds and contribute something ourselves, is sadly unknown here, says Veljko.


Main square in Osijek, Eastern Slavonia, Croatia 2008
Most of Zagreb and Osijek reminds you of Vienna

© Jan Oberg 2008

And to get in there, several tricks are played. The EU and Croatia always emphasize the law on equality and minority rights. There are various constitutional laws and they have all been passed with nice wordings by Zabor, and the EU seems happy. Veljko however says:

- Truth is that there are various mechanisms that allow municipalities to decide to implement or not implement those laws locally. An example: national law says that 10% of municipal employees shall be Serbs, but we have still 0% here in Pakrac. There is also a right to have public signs in both languages, but you have seen for yourself how there is no Cyrillic signs left anywhere in Croatia. And you have seen how provocatively virtually every main square and street has become “Dr Franjo Tudjman’s this-or-that” or labelled with other Croatian nationalists’ names. And how they can raise expensive monuments for Tudjman, this war criminal, everywhere next to ruins that have not been rebuilt for 15 years! The remarkable things is that it is all there for any visitor from Europe to see!

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- Croatia brags about its fine human rights laws and record ­ and everyone out there seems to turn a blind eye to the de facto non-implementation of them. I repeat, municipalities are not obliged to implement them if they don’t want to or it would cost them money. That’s how it works in order to not work! This country is far from ready for anything like the European Union and it is time the EU itself wakes up to the reality. But here we are caught again: the West sided with Croatia and now cannot admit that its war roots were rotten and its peacemaking as an independent state is non-existent. These laws were written only as window dressing for the international community. Add to that the rampant economic corruption in this country…

- So much for human and minority rights, he goes on with an increasingly energetic voice. But you must understand that with this being so, we will also never get the wheels spinning. As long as the government ignores the laws and minority rights, mutual trust cannot develop over time and without that trust we cannot work together on economic development in a place like Pakrac. In a way, Croatia and the Croats themselves are their own worst enemies because this country thrives mainly from what comes automatically: tourists. But look, we ourselves must also work to get a better life and that means working together.

- Why is it that every policy and every project around here has one factor in common: that it marginalises non-Croats? Why has the return of innocent people been made so difficult when we dearly need labour to build a better future? I can see only one reason: Because they are not Croats! So I am dismayed when I find that Serb politicians as Serbs tell foreigners that everything is now fine in Croatia. You who have come here for so many years can compare and see how little has actually changed in the attitudes and policies of official Croatia since the war.

While he talks I silently wonder where Croat intellectuals are and how they feel about Veljko Dzakula’s viewpoints. International media and intellectuals don’t even know who this formidable, but humble, man is. Here is a soft guy leading a very competent organization for years and who has devoted his life to fight extremism and nationalism on all sides including his own and has been a witness against Milosevic, Seselj and Matic in the Hague. He has only barely survived attempts on his life from both sides and he has presented visions of a better Croatia for both Croats and Serbs. He is probably something of a Serb Gandhian with a constructive nationwide program for agricultural development involving both Croats and Serbs and thereby move towards economic growth and reconciliation.


Veljko Dzakula outside the Serb Democratic Forum house in
Gavrinica, Pakrac - bullet holes still in the walls, Croatia 2008
© Jan Oberg 2008


And no one seems to really hear or see it? I’m afraid that the Yugoslav drama is only a closed chapter on the surface. It’s time for the EU to wake up – if it were a union working for the peace it does according to its own Treaty. I choose to ignore that propaganda and wish Veljko, SDF and every other brave peace-workers all the best – there outside the still bullet-filled centre of democracy.


Symbol of the international peace-making? Of local hatred? Of EU ignorance?
Church ruin in the village of Medari, Western Slavonia, Croatia 2008
© Jan Oberg 2008



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