By Boris Pavelic and Gordana Andric
Croatia marked the seventeenth anniversary of its military operation “Storm” [Oluja] in the town of Knin on Sunday, where for the first time one of the Croatian Serb leaders was present.
Veljko Dzakula, a former high ranking official in the self proclaimed Serb Autonomous Region of Krajina in Croatia, attended the ceremony on Sunday as part of the Croatian state delegation led by President Ivo Josipovic and PM Zoran Milanovic.
Dzakula, the head of a humanitarian NGO, the Serb Democratic Forum, which helps Serb refugees to return to Croatia, was the only Croatian Serb leader who accepted Josipovic’s invitation to participate in the official ceremony marking the operation Storm.
Speaking to journalists after the ceremony, Dzakula said that “everybody should apologize for all crimes”.
“Storm would be a more legitimate military action if all the victims were recognised, including Serbs. Serb victims deserve respect and public recognition as well”, Dzakula said.
The highest Croatian state officials sent messages of reconciliation in their speeches, expressing welcome to Dzakula’s participation in the ceremony.
Reminding that Croatia won the war, President Josipovic said that the country has to also win the peace.
“To win the peace, means to lend a hand to our fellow Serb countrymen, to recognise their victims and bow in front of them,” said Josipovic.
Croatian PM Zoran Milanovic said that “we celebrate not to exult in other people’s suffering, which has to be recognised, but in order to pull the best out of ourselves”, Milanovic said.
“Our war was just, defensive and human, and with those values we join Europe”, Milanovic added.
The president of the center-right opposition party Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, Tomislav Karamarko, was the only one to doubt Dzakula’s credibility to send reconciliatory messages.
“I welcome his presence, but he is not the person to convey messages of apology and reconciliation, because he was arrested by the Croatian police in 1995,“ said Karamarko.
When Croatian forces recaptured Western Slavonia in the operation “Flash” in May 1995, Dzakula was arrested in his home in the town of Pakrac, but was released soon after.
Together with Nikola Ivkanec, the Croatian police commander in Pakrac who personally put handcuffs on his hands in 1995, Dzakula was given a human rights award in 1996 by the USA embassy in Croatia .
Liturgies for the victims of operation Storm were held on Saturday in orthodox churches in Belgrade and in the city of Banja Luka in Republika Srpska.
In Belgrade’s St. Mark’s church, the remembrance service, led by the Serbian Orthodox Church patriarch Irinej, was attended by some 200 refugees who fled Croatia during the Operation Storm.
“I am here to show that I will not forget my home. I do not hate anyone and I do realise what they [Croats] are celebrating, but a quarter of a million of us were forced to leave and we have the right to grieve. We deserve an apology, but I do not expect one,” said the young man who attended the service..
According to the Serbian association for missing people ‘Tear” about 1,950 Serbs from Croatia are still missing. So far 1,018 bodies have been exhumed and 668 were identified.
“My mother was murdered a few days after Storm. We have some information about her death, but her body has still not been identified. I come here every year to pay my respect to all those who died on this day and in the days that followed,” said one of the participants.
Representatives of the families of those who are still missing have called on the Croatian government to speed up the exhumation and identification of the bodies.
For years Serb leaders in Croatia refused to attend the ceremonies marking the Operation Storm, claiming that the celebration neglects Serb victims and that Croatia still treats Serbs as second class citizens in all walks of life.
Croatian human rights NGOs support those claims.
Vesna Terselic, leader of the NGO Documenta said at a press conference on Friday that “Croatia has to learn that the Storm anniversary means happiness for those who could return to their homes, but sadness for those who were victims”.
“It is not easy to learn that, but this is the task of the Croatian society”, Terselic said.
The leader of the Serbian National Council in Croatia, Milorad Pupovac, who is also a Croatian MP, refused president Josipovic’s invitation to attend the ceremony, saying in a statement issued on Saturday that “in the Croatian public remembrance there’s still no place for Serb suffering”.
About 60 thousand Croatian Serbs are still refugees, the Serbian National Council, SNV, reminded.
“Most of the crimes remain unpunished. Many missing people are still unidentified and not buried in dignity. Hate speech is coming not only from marginal groups, but also from national politicians and public media, ” said the SNV.