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Taking a Field Trip into Croatia’s ‘Unwanted Memories’ of Wartime

“There is no one to ask about what happened there, no evidence that anything ever transpired there, and all we know is what someone else tells us.”

These were the words of one of the participants in a two-day study visit made by a group of ten young Croats and Serbs to the area around the town of Gospic in Croatia’s Lika region, where the Croatian Army and police’s ‘Medak Pocket’ operation took place from September 9 to 17, 1993.

The field trip, titled ‘Youth Remember the Forgotten’, was held on September 16-17 to coincide with the 30th anniversary of a massacre of Croatian citizens who belonged to the country’s Serb national minority during the military-police operation.

During the visit, organised by the Serbian National Council, which represents Serbs’ interests in Croatia, and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) NGO, the young participants visited the sites of killings and met the families of the Serb civilians who were murdered during the operation.

Some of the participants said they were surprised to learn that the Croatian government’s narratives about the Medak Pocket operation have completely erased facts and truths about the operation which do not fit with the narratives of what is known in Croatia as the Homeland War for independence from Yugoslavia.

In a sign of how sensitive issues like this remain, 30 years later, the participants in the study tour all asked to remain anonymous in this article.

Visiting the forgotten crime scenes

According to a YIHR opinion survey from December 2022, 72.5 per cent of the young Croats who responded had never heard the massacre of Serb civilians during the Medak Pocket military operation.

The young people from Croatia and Serbia who participated in the study trip, together with representatives of the Centre for Nonviolent Action Belgrade, started out by listening to a lecture by journalist and historian Tihomir Ponos, who provided detailed information about the operation, the victims and the judicial aftermath.

They then visited locations near Gospic where the operation took place, including Medak, Jasikovac, Pocitelj and Divoselo. As well as exploring the sites and speaking with the few remaining residents and witnesses of the events of September 1993, they also engaged in conversations with the families of the victims.

When 77-year-old Mirko from Medak, one of the few residents of the village, was asked about what life was like in the area before the war, he responded by recalling his own youth: “All those villages, Medak, Divoselo, Pocitelj, had cultural centres where we gathered as young people.”

He went on to say that people from Medak now live all over the world – in Serbia, Sweden and Canada. When asked by the young participants about the inter-ethnic atmosphere in the Lika region in the early 1990s, he commented that “no one believed that there would be a war”.

The landscape of the Lika region is now seriously depopulated. One of the participants in the study tour described it as “disturbing” to see its villages.

“You can see that they have become overgrown with weeds, and this process of forgetting which has been systematically carried out by denying the events that took place during the war. It has come to the point where there will be no one left there in a few years,” the participant said.

They also visited the cemetery in Jasikovac, near Gospic, where inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla’s father and mother are buried.

“When we arrived at that cemetery, which has become a decaying archaeological relic of a time that is consistently denied, it was extremely powerful to see graves marked in both Cyrillic and Latin scripts,” another participant said.

“It serves as living proof that at one point, we [Serbs and Croats] were buried side by side without any hesitation or division.”

‘No prisoners, no survivors’

The study visit concluded with a ceremony in which roses were placed at the cemetery in Medak in memory of the civilian victims of the operation.

The participants also attended a commemorative event organised by the Serbian National Council and attended by families of the victims, locals and Zoran Pusic, the president of the Anti-Fascist League and Veran Matic, the special adviser to the Serbian president on missing persons.

In his speech at the event, Milorad Pupovac, the president of the Serbian National Council, noted that there had just been an official state commemoration of the Medak Pocket operation in Gospic on September 9.

“It’s a shame that no one felt it necessary or had an inner need to remember the human suffering that this action caused,” he said, referring to the omission of mentions of the victims who were killed.

“The operation was led by rules that no prisoners, no survivors and no traces of life were to be left behind,” he added.

‘It is not the distant past’

The unlawful killings of captured or wounded soldiers and at least 100 Serb civilians were documented by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the cases against Janko Bobetko and Mirko Norac.

In the Bobetko indictment, it was stated that “at least 100 Serbian civilians and captured and/or wounded soldiers from the Medak Pocket” were killed. In an annex to the indictment, 29 of the civilians and five of the soldiers were named, and it was also stated that Croatian forces systematically destroyed 164 houses and 148 other buildings.

In 2008, a Croatian court sentenced Norac to seven years in jail over his role in the massacre of Serb civilians and prisoners of war. In 2011, Norac was released from prison after serving five years.

Then in 2018, Norac attended Croatia’s official commemoration of the anniversary of the Medak Pocket operation. The Croatian defence minister even publicly greeted him and thanked him for coming to honour the operation. Norac then received “the greatest applause” from attendees, according to Dragan Pjevac, head of Serbia’s Coalition for Missing Persons.

On September 9 this year, Croatian officials and war veterans marked the anniversary in Gospic by again paying respect to those who participated in the operation.

Like this year’s official event, state narratives have continued to be about ‘liberation’ while facts about the killings of civilians and prisoners of war have remained hidden.

To counter such narratives and the legacies of ‘unwanted memories’ of the 1990s wars, alternative commemorations have emerged, initiated by human rights and anti-war activists in the region.

Participants in the study trip expressed their shock and disbelief that such serious crimes were committed by the Croatian military in the Gospic area in 1993. They were also troubled by the fact that the Medak Pocket crimes are not spoken about in the public arena.

“The effort to erase such an event, along with all those lives, and to strip them of their basic human essence, their existence, and even the memory of their existence, is painful,” one of them remarked.

“The next generations will know nothing about it unless they are taught, and such teachings are only found in schools that are already liberal. Civil society organisations may reach some individuals, particularly young people, but not the majority.”

Discussing how memory influences the future in the former Yugoslavia, the participant also argued: “If we cannot remember the past realistically, we will have a future built on lies. It will be a future shaped by the narratives one side wants the public to believe are true.”

“If an identity or perspective of the past, rooted in pain and loss, is replaced by hatred fuelled by a manufactured narrative, then nothing will improve.”

During the trip, the participants also deliberated on why it is crucial for young people to remember events from the past, especially those hidden from public view or when there is no clear institutional recognition of the crimes that happened.

“I don’t know who else will remember if we don’t. Those who lived through the 1990s will find it much more challenging to change their opinions compared to us, who were born afterwards,” said one participant.

“Despite living in the current environment, we are more independent and can always view things from an external perspective,” they added.

“The 1990s remain pertinent; to me, it is not the distant past,” said another participant.

“To me, the past is what led to the events of the 1990s. As long as political elites of Croatia and Serbia continue to blame one another for crimes committed during the 1990s, we will not move beyond the narrative of war.”

Source : Balkan Insight

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