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KNIN, Croatia — August is the toughest month for Anja Raskovic and the Serbs of Knin, a dusty town of 10,000 people in Croatia’s southeast.
It is when they quietly mourn a historic episode that is celebrated with raucous pride in the town and across a deeply patriotic country — and this August is even harder than most for Croatia’s Serbs.
Knin will be the focus for today’s events to mark 20 years since Operation Storm, a glorious military triumph for Croatia but a bloody calamity for this region’s Serb community, whose centuries-old presence here it almost ended.
The day after a military parade full of pomp Tuesday in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, Knin will consecrate the country’s biggest Catholic church. Also, a new monument to wartime president Franjo Tudjman will be unveiled after being helicoptered into the hilltop fortress, and some 150,000 people are expected to attend a concert by nationalist singer Marko Perkovic Thompson.
Raskovic’s family was among some 200,000 ethnic Serbs who fled Knin and the surrounding area, as Croatian troops launched a blitzkrieg against Serb separatists who had seized what they called the Krajina region in summer 1990 and driven out its Croat population.
In the biggest military operation in Europe since World War Two, Croatia reclaimed almost 20 percent of its land from Serb separatists and helped force belligerent Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table that autumn, where he agreed to end five years of conflict that had destroyed Yugoslavia.
Two decades ago, on Aug. 5, 1995, Croatia’s troops surged back into Knin, putting Serb rebels to flight and securing the country’s territory and independence from a Belgrade gripped by Milosevic’s aim of a “Greater Serbia.”
Some Croats are uncomfortable with the militaristic, religious and jingoistic flavor of the events, but many will be united on this Victory Day holiday in celebrating the triumph over Milosevic’s Serbia and its proxies in Croatia.
For mostSerbs, however, thoughts of August 1995 bring only sorrow.
Raskovic recalled how, at the age of eight, she had stuffed some things into a rucksack and set off with her parents into the unknown.
“On Aug. 4 we heard bombs and shells exploding, and went out to a nearby village where my grandmother lived,” she said.
“When we got there it was clear that something big was happening and that lots of Serbs were already on the move. We didn’t have much time to prepare, and didn’t know where we were going, but we joined the huge lines of cars and trucks and tractors. We wanted to stay, but we had no choice but to leave.”
Less than a quarter of Serbs who fled Croatia in 1995 have returned to their former homes, and Serbia regards Operation Storm as an act of “ethnic cleansing” supported by the West and led by political and military chiefs who have never been punished.
“Most Croat soldiers didn’t commit crimes, but some did and Croatia knows it,” said Zeljko Vukelic, a Croatian Serb who fought with separatist forces, referring to several hundred Serb civilians allegedly killedby Croats during and after Operation Storm, when thousands of Serb homes were looted and burned.
“Their leaders might not have ordered it, but they were aware of it and did not stop it — and Serb commanders have been convicted in such cases,” said Vukelic, 46, who fled Croatia with his family just before the operation and now lives in Serbia.
While many former senior Serb officers have been convicted in international courts at the Hague for grave crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars — Milosevic died before a verdict was delivered in his trial — the Croatian generals who led Operation Storm were cleared of war crimes on appeal in 2012 by the International Crimincal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and Tudjman and other top wartime Croatian political leaders died within years of the operation.
“Some Serb civilians were killed in the chaos after Storm. Croats came home to find their houses occupied or destroyed, and some people on both sides were drunk and crazy. But I never saw a Croatian soldier kill a civilian,” said Marko Vukasovic, whose unit was one of the first to enter Knin on the morning of Aug. 5, 1995.
“There was no time to celebrate, because we had to secure the area around the town. But a comrade and I had joked for a long time about when we would finally have coffee in Knin. And we had a coffee that day,” he recalled.
“It was a great feeling to go into Knin, which was Croatia’s medieval capital but had become a symbol of Serb separatism,” said Vukasovic, 52, who fought in many of the key battles of a 1990-95 war that claimed some 20,000 lives.
Before the conflict, ethnic Serbs formed a majority in Knin and much of the so-called Krajina region along Croatia’s border with Bosnia.
As Yugoslavia collapsed, the area became a flashpoint in rapidly worsening relations between Serbia and Croatia, where Milosevic and Tudjman whipped up fear and nationalist feeling with the help of often-hysterical propaganda.
As Croatia sought to follow Slovenia in leaving a dysfunctional and increasingly Serb-dominated Yugoslavia, Krajina Serb politicians — with backing from Belgrade — rejected the authority of Tudjman and his government, blocked roads into their region and announced the creation of a Republic of Serb Krajina; about 80,000 Croats were driven from the region and local Serb rebels, backed by Yugoslav army troops, committed arbitrary killings of Croat civilians.
As Vukasovic and his comrades poured back into Knin in 1995, it was Serb civilians like Raskovic and her family who were on the move, loading whatever they could into any vehicle they could find and fleeing for Bosnia and Serbia.
“Serb forces had already left, and offered no resistance. Knin was almost deserted,” Vukasovic said of the culmination of Operation Storm, which pitted about 130,000 Croatian troops against some 30,000 Serb fighters.
“I felt sorry for those columns of people leaving the land where they had lived for centuries. But I had seen how Serbs brutally expelled our people from that land in 1991. To be honest, I had mixed feelings, of sympathy and revenge.”
Josipa Rimac’s family returned to Knin two days after the Croatian flag was raised again over the town’s fortress. They had fled the region in 1990, when she was 10 years old.
“My father was jailed here, just because he was Croatian, and he was forced to sign over the papers to our house. We couldn’t stay here,” recalled Rimac, who is now mayor of Knin and a rising star in the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union, the party founded by Tudjman.
“We never doubted that we would come back, because this is our land. It’s a wonderful feeling that Knin is free, and that we can go to pray in the Catholic church without fear. Knin is ours and we won’t let it go.”
Serbia’s leaders — ex-allies of Milosevic — will commemorate what they call the “ethnic cleansing” of Krajina, and have urged Western officials not to join Croatia’s celebrations of a victory that owed much to weapons sourced in Europe and training given to senior Croatian troops by retired U.S. military officers.
Many Serbs believe their nation takes an unfair amount of blame for the Yugoslav wars, and bristle at how few Croats have been punished for killings committed during and after Operation Storm: Only one former soldier has been convicted of war crimes, while several others have been jailed for aggravated murder.
Croatians refuse to apologize, however, for celebrating the liberation of their territory from local separatists and their brutal allies from Milosevic’s Serbia.
“I worked for the Red Cross for seven years and saw how Serbia treats its refugees from the war,” said Rimac.
“Serbian politicians don’t feel sorry for those people. They are sorry that Operation Storm was a success, and they blame Serbs from Knin for the failure of their plans [for ‘Greater Serbia’].”
The mayor said that Knin has not witnessed any ethnic violence since 1995, and she is confident that the celebrations will be peaceful.
Raskovic, who returned to Knin in 1999 and is now a deputy on the town council, said she and fellow Serbs know full well what to expect this week.
“We are used to this celebration every August. Serbs will stay at home or leave for a few days,” she said.
“It’s not a simple or easy time for Serbs. But we will survive and, God willing, things won’t get out of hand.”