Croatia: Fury Over Arms Dump Blast

Victims of police station explosion furious at what they see as government indifference

Croatia: Fury Over Arms Dump Blast

Victims of police station explosion furious at what they see as government indifference

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

"It was like the war all over again," shuddered student Sonja Kovac as she recalled the terrifying, three-hour bombardment that rained on the city of Osijek in eastern Croatia one August night last year.

It wasn't another war though - just a carelessly sited weapons dump blowing up at the back of the local police station. The lethal cocktail of munitions had been collected during a recent arms amnesty.

Blazing fragments of weaponry hurtled down on houses in Reisnerova Street. A huge fireball consumed dozens of parked cars. "I hid underneath my bed as the walls shook around me," Sonja said.

When it was over, Minister of Interior Sime Lucin came to take a look and promised to make a report within three weeks. Nothing has been heard so far.

The incident reinforced a widespread feeling that the people of the economically depressed Slavonia region are neglected by the central government. It has also highlighted Croatia's widespread obsession with firearms.

For the Kovac family the August explosion was actually worse than the war. During an eight-month siege mounted by the Yugoslav National Army in 1991-92, the family house escaped with just a few broken windows. This time the ceiling collapsed as the Kovacs dived underneath their kitchen table.

Sonja Kovac was furious. "The police are supposed to protect us but they just said we were lucky to be alive," she said. A special police explosives unit defused a landmine that catapulted into the family's back garden, but Valentina Kovac was still discovering unexploded bullets in her flowerbeds months later. "I was in shock for a week," she said.

Zinka Bardic, of Croatia's interior ministry, told IWPR that an inquiry has been completed and its results have been sent to the

prosecutor's office. So far, the Osijek police chief has been replaced - and Bardic says others responsible for "improper weapons storage" will be punished.

But local people believe the authorities have been slow to get to the bottom of the incident and have failed to help its victims.

For example, officials promised to compensate only those who have not managed to repair their homes. As most have - and been driven into debt in the process - they see the offer as deeply cynical.

Osijek police station is said to contain a purpose-built underground

compound for weapons storage. But officers chose to place only their own guns there, storing all the firearms handed in during the amnesty outdoors in makeshift metal containers amid questionable security.

People in Osijek reported hearing several rifle shots just before the first big detonations, fuelling suspicions that the explosion might have been caused deliberately.

Some have tried to pin the blame on police officers disgruntled at the prospect of a 20 per cent cut in the 23,000-strong force, as part of a cost-cutting programme prescribed by the International Monetary Fund, the IMF.

Seen as a pillar of hard-line nationalism, the police service was heavily involved in the country's bloody four-year conflict in which scores of officers lost their lives. Right-wingers view the erosion of police numbers as a setback for the nationalist cause in a country now ruled by a more moderate government.

The police conspiracy theory, however, was dismissed by one government official who blamed it all on a "chemical reaction" inside the dump.

Ironically, the guns and munitions which exploded in the dump blast had been collected as part of a government weapons amnesty aimed at reducing the threat posed by unlicensed firearms. Tragic incidents involving them abound.

Earlier this month, a three-year-old child at Baranja, near Osijek, shot dead his mother with a weapon carelessly left on a kitchen table. During New Year's Eve celebrations, the night reverberated with the clatter of Kalashnikov automatic weapons being fired in the air, and a well-known opera singer died when a stray bullet hit her in the head.

Last summer, two German divers were blown up in the sea near the

Adriatic island of Pag after locals went fishing with dynamite. There were also several cases of tourists involved in minor motoring incidents suddenly finding themselves confronted by gun-waving locals.

Such images are the last thing Croatia wants at a time when it is attempting to join the European Union - although Ivan Zvonimir Cicak, a leading Croat human rights campaigner, believes such reckless behaviour is embedded in the country's culture. "It will not change overnight," he said.

Dominic Hipkins is a freelance journalist based in Croatia

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