Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Croatia: Confronting Wartime Taboos
Croatian TV has aired an unprecedented documentary exploring the formerly taboo subject of Croat war crimes against Serb civilians after the army recaptured the rebel Krajina region in Operation Storm (Oluja).
The documentary, entitled Storm over Krajina, shown on October 1 on the popular current affairs programme Latinica, was the work of a freelance journalist, Bozo Knezevic.
For many in Croatia, the film represented a complete eye-opener, as official policy under former president Franjo Tudjman held that Croats could not be accused of committing war crimes because they had acted purely in self-defence.
The centre-left government of Prime Minister Ivica Racan, which took power in 2000, has deliberately opened the issue of war crimes to prepare public opinion for the extradition of more Croat suspect to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
The ministry of culture donated 25,000 German marks for the documentary, which depicted several old women, survivors of Storm, recalling how their mostly sick and paralysed family members and peers were killed two weeks after the military operation ended in August 1995.
Operation Storm successfully resulted in the reintegration of the Krajina region, which armed Serb separatists had seized in 1991. However it also triggered an exodus of about 200,000 Croatian Serbs, and the Helsinki Committee and other human rights groups have claimed around 400 civilians were killed and several thousand Serbian houses were burned down.
The Hague tribunal has since launched an investigation into allegations that the Croat forces committed war crimes against the Serbs.
The subject remains deeply controversial among the general public. But, when Latinica asked viewers to vote by phone on whether they would now support prosecuting the perpetrators of war crimes, more then two thirds of voters, around 5,000 out of 7,500, said they would favour such action.
Right-wing politicians reacted angrily to the programme's content. After the broadcast, the programme editor Denis Latin became the target of such serious threats that for a while he had to be accompanied by two bodyguards.
The opposition Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, which was in power during the time of Operation Storm, called for Latin and Mirko Galic, general director of Croatian TV, to be dismissed.
The party accused the programme makers of wrongly equalising crimes committed by Serbs and Croats and of deliberately playing down the former. HDZ chief Ivo Sanader said in a public letter that it tried to "humiliate Croatian veterans who fought in the war".
Veterans groups were still sharper in their protests. They played a key role in fierce anti-government protests last February that followed the arrest of a youthful general, Mirko Norac, charged
with committing war crimes in 1991 against Serb civilians in Gospic, on the border with the Serb-held Krajina.
The same groups have been active in defending General Ante Gotovina, who has remained at large since The Hague tribunal revealed an indictment against him last summer for alleged war crimes committed during and after Operation Storm.
Nenad Ivankovic, deputy president of the veterans' group Honos, said HTV had ceased producing programmes dealing with crimes committed by Serbs because they did not fit into the Hague tribunal's plans.
Ivankovic, the former editor of the pro-government daily Vijesnik under Tudjman, recently penned a flattering biography of General Gotovina, praising his role in the war in Croatia.
Despite the protests from the right-wingers, HTV has continued to explore the subject of Croatian war crimes and three weeks after the controversial documentary it aired another programme, interviewing two surviving children from a once prominent Zagreb Serb family murdered in 1991.
Many suspect the Zec family, who now live in Banja Luka, in Republika Srpska, were targeted in order to encourage other Serbs in Croatian cities to leave the country. Although the killers were later arrested and even admitted the crime, they were released. The triple murder was never satisfactorily explained or its perpetrators punished. Sinisa Rimac, one of the alleged killers, is still in the Croatian army.
The government may still be torn between its obligations to The
Hague and fears of being accused of treason by the Right, but if recent TV is a yardstick, Racan seems determined to confront the dark side of Croatia's recent wartime past.
Goran Ivanovic is a journalist with the Croatian department of the BBC in Zagreb.
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