Friday, 6 August 2021

Speaker: Revisionist Messages from Serbia Always on Operation Storm Anniversary

ZAGREB, 6 Aug 2021 - Parliament Speaker Gordan Jandroković said on Friday that Serbia was traditionally sending historically inaccurate messages on the occasion of the anniversary of Croatian military and police Operation Storm.

These messages are an attempt to change the perception of what we know to be a historic truth, and the truth is that Serbia was the aggressor against Croatia and that the sacrifices Croatia had made were enormous, Jandroković said in Split.

"Serbia must face history and its own responsibility," the parliament speaker said, adding that "attempts to revise history will not fall on fertile ground."

"We know that Croatia was attacked, that we led a just war and that we won the war," he added.

Jandrokovic went on to say that "what is happening in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be openly addressed," namely "attempts to push the Croat people out of the position of a constituent and equal people."

He underscored that it was Croatia's "constitutional and moral obligation to help Croats in Bosnia."

August 5 is probably the most controversial topic in relations between Serbia and Croatia - the Serbs mourn those killed and expelled in the 1995 Operation Storm while Croatians celebrate the victory which was the final blow to the four-year rebel Serbs' rule of some 25 percent of Croatia's territory.

For more on politics, CLICK HERE.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Roma in the Homeland War: More Research on Defending Croatia Needed

August 5, 2021 - When talking about the fight for Croatian independence, the public often tends to forget about the contributions of minorities such as Roma in the Homeland War. TCN reporter Ivor Kruljac reminds us of a 2019 book that researched Roma participation in defending Croatia, which is a great starting point for further research today.   

Croatia is marking the 26th Anniversary of Operation Storm, a military action that, on August 5, 1995, marked the liberation of occupied territory (apart from Eastern Slavonia, which was returned to Croatia later on during peaceful reintegration).

Victory Day is filled with pride, but for some, there is a shade of bitterness as a result of the questionable treatment of civilians and prisoners of war that to this day continues to divide the opinion of the Croatian public and remains a topic of numerous historical debates.

As noticed by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), things changed significantly in 2020. This came as a result of moves made by Croatian politicians, not only with words but also by their honouring of Serbian civilian victims in Varivode and Gruber.

''Last year's anniversary was marked by changes in the official policy towards Operation Storm (Oluja), known in Croatia as Victory Day (Dan Pobjede) and Homeland Thanksgiving Day (Dan Domovinske Zahvalnosti). August 2020 saw the public space filled with messages about reconciliation, dialogue, the importance of facts, condolences for war crime victims, and appeals for a conversation about different views on Operation Storm in both Croatia and Serbia,'' said YIHR.

With 2020 evoking feelings of sympathy for all victims of the Homeland War, a significant step was also made back in 2019 to recognise that not only ethnic Croats fought for the freedom and independence of their country. 

We defended Croatia Too: Roma People in the Homeland War“, is a monography by Borna Marinić which was presented in 2019. It was the first publication to gather info on the contribution made in the war by the often discriminated against and socially isolated minority in Croatia. The presentation was held in the "Zvonimir Home" of the Croatian military in Zagreb. The publication was the first to really delve into the contribution of Roma in the Homeland War.

The promotion gathered many VIP attendees of political and military Croatian authorities at the time. Marinić, a historian and the editor of the website ''Dogodilo se na Današnji Dan'' (It Happened on This Day), pointed out that not a lot is known about the actions of the Roma in the Homeland War, and this lack of documentation was the biggest problem he had to tackle when it came to verbal storytelling from witnesses.

''I visited Roma veterans and their commanders as well as other relevant people across Croatia, recording their statements and testimonies about the Homeland War,'' said Marinić. His research saw more than 50 people interviewed, but the total count of Roma people who participated in the war still remains unknown.

Dr. Martin Previšić pointed out while reviewing the book that it doesn't provide readers with a linear story of the war's history, but rather an authentic view on the hell of wartime and the solidarity which trumped very many differences. 

''Vukovar, Baranja, Pakrac, Novska, and Karlovac were places in which Croatia was defended, but they were also places where Roma people gave their tribute to that same defense,'' said Previšić.

Veljko Kajtazi, a member of the Croatian Parliament, elected as a representative of the Roma community, attended the representation, delighted to see that this important but unexplored subject was finally being tackled by a researcher in the first-ever book published on the topic. He pointed out, however, that this book cannot be viewed as an encyclopedia as it didn't record the experiences of all Roma people, nor does it have all of the information from all fronts, but it is a terrific base for further research.

''I'm grateful to my fellow Roma people who shared their stories and whose faith is the cornerstone of this book. I felt the obligation for Roma people to come forward and present themselves in a different light. Roma people, in large numbers, defended Croatia and gave their contribution to the defense in key moments,'' concluded Kajtazi.

Kajtazi talked about the need for Roma people to begin presenting themselves in a different light and stated that there are definitely numerous issues caused by stereotypes that Roma people are involved in crime and as such can't be trusted. 

As TCN previously wrote, The Human Rights in Croatia 2020 Overview report by Human Rights House Zagreb noticed how Roma people in Croatia still face very many obstacles in achieving their rights, which include employment, access to services, and adequate living standards, and there is still segregation in the Croatian education system too.

Additionally, the global issue of COVID-19 brought new problems for Roma people in regard to vaccination against COVID-19, a topic both Kajtazi and the Croatian Public Health Institute (HZJZ) spoke about for TCN.

Roma people helped Croatia during the darkest of its days as a new and young country. Respecting and working on actively including Roma people in our society as equals is the very least Croatia can do in return.

Learn more about Croatian politics and history from the 1990s on our TC page.

For more about science in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Thursday, 5 August 2021

Prime Minister: We Will Not Allow Anyone to Question Legitimacy of Operation Storm

Zagreb, 5 Aug 2021 - Magnanimity in victory does not mean that Croatia will ever allow anyone to question the legitimacy of Operation Storm or the defensive nature of the Homeland War, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković told a ceremony in Knin on Thursday marking the 26th anniversary of the operation that ended a Serb armed insurgency in 1995.

"It is always a special feeling to come to Knin on this day because it is an opportunity for us to remember the days of pride and victory which are deeply impressed on the hearts of all Croats, but which are also an expression of lasting gratitude to all those who gave their lives so that Croatia could live and be free," Plenković said in his speech, extending his best wishes for Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and Croatian Veterans Day.

Today we pay tribute to the victorious Croatian army and police who, under the leadership of President Franjo Tuđman, defeated in battle the criminal policy of the Serbian regime of Slobodan Milošević, which secured Croatia's survival, ended the war, and established lasting peace.

"That victory and our legitimate right to live as free people in our own country were, unfortunately, paid in the lives of the bravest of Croatian sons to whom we are forever grateful, as we are to many members of the ethnic minorities who also defended Croatia," Plenković said. 

"Today we are in thoughts with the families of the defenders who were killed, Croatian disabled war veterans and many civilian casualties," he said, stressing that the Homeland War and the victories won in Operation Storm, as well as in Operation Flash and other military operations that preceded it, were the foundations of the present Croatian state.

"That's why shedding light on the truth about missing persons, the prosecution of war crimes, and the attainment of justice for everyone who was caused pain remains our lasting duty," the prime minister said, adding that "we will always celebrate Operation Storm indignity so that future generations would also foster the values of the Homeland War."

He said that after symbolic gestures made at last year's anniversary, his government would continue to pursue the policy of reconciliation, co-existence, and understanding, respecting the historical truth and paying respects to all innocent victims.

"But magnanimity in victory does not mean that we will ever allow anyone to question the legitimacy of Operation Storm and the defensive nature of the Homeland War. This is also a message to our neighbor, Serbia, which in my opinion should abandon the futile rhetoric of the past, face up to its own responsibility, pursue a policy of reconciliation and look to the future", Plenković said.

He said that the sacrifices made oblige us to strengthen the Croatian state in political, economic, defense and security aspects and to respond to the challenges facing us, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, recovery after the economic crisis, the imperative of demographic survival, post-earthquake reconstruction, climate change, and natural disasters.

He said that Croatia would continue to act in its national interests by pursuing the policy of modern sovereignty based on its membership of NATO and the European Union. Here he cited the construction of the Pelješac Bridge, which will provide a direct road link between southern Croatia and the rest of the country, the completion of the motorway in Istria County, forthcoming membership of the Schengen Area and the euro area, and the purchase of fighter jets.

"We are doing all this while strengthening our international position and using the benefits of EU membership and at the same time taking care of Croatian war veterans and their families," the prime minister said.

For more about politics in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

President Zoran Milanović: There's no Boycott, Some Generals Received Invitation Too Late

ZAGREB, 4 Aug, 2021 - President Zoran Milanović said on Wednesday that the fact that some of the army generals will not attend the Victory Day celebration in Knin is not a boycott, but that they received invitations too late.

Who has announced a boycott? Ljubo Ćesić Rojs has not. Josip Đakić is not a general, he is a bum, and a member of parliament, in other words he is nobody. Rojs will be there, Pavao Miljavac will be there and Ante Kotromanović will be there. Of course, not everyone can come every year, but most  people will be there," Milanović said during a visit to the southern town of Sinj.

He said he did not think there was any pressure on some of the generals by the Defence Ministry "because no one can exert pressure on those people," but noted that some of the generals and commanders were put in an awkward position because they received the invitation the day before the event, which was the ministry's responsibility.

During the visit, Milanović conferred high state medals on retired Brigadier Dušan Viro and posthumously on Franciscan Frane Bilokapić for their acts of humanity during the 1991-1995 Homeland War.

He said he did not consider the decoration of General Mladen Kruljac disputable even though he had been found guilty of corruption. "He is a war commander and is decorated what he did in the war. No one is perfect, but what he did in the war is without a doubt impeccable, and he is not the only one."

Judge Dobronić is my candidate for Supreme Court President

Answering questions from the press, Milanović confirmed that 61-year-old Judge Radovan Dobronić is his candidate for the position of Supreme Court President.

He has responded to the call for applications and "now we will see what will those who undermined, torpedoed and dishonoured my previous candidate do," Milanović said, describing Dobronić as smart, educated, honourable and incorruptible.

For more about politics in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

State Delegations Lay Wreaths at Mirogoj Cemetery

ZAGREB, 4 Aug, 2021 - On the eve of Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day, War Veterans Day and the central commemoration in Knin, state delegations laid wreaths at Zagreb's central Mirogoj cemetery on Wednesday.

The government delegation was led by Veterans' Minister Tomo Medved and a delegation of the Croatian Parliament was led by Deputy Speaker Željko Reiner.

The delegations laid wreaths at the Wall of Pain monument, the Central Cross in the Alley of Fallen Croatian Homeland War Defenders, the grave of Croatia's first president Franjo Tudjman, and at the common grave of unidentified victims of the 1991-95 war.

Wreaths were also laid by a delegation of President Zoran Milanović, led by his advisor on defence and national security Dragan Lozančić, as well as a delegation of the City of Zagreb, led by deputy mayor Luka Korlaet.

Shortly after that, a delegation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), led by member of the SDP presidency and MEP Predrag Fred Matic, laid flowers and lit candles at the Wall of Pain monument and the Central Cross in the Alley of Fallen Croatian Homeland War Defenders.

For more about politics in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Operation Storm Panel By YIHR: What to Expect From 2021 Commemoration

August 3, 2021 - The Operation Storm Panel by YIHR will bring history experts together to discuss the progress in Operation Storm (Oluja) commemorations and future relations between Serbia and Croatia. The audience is welcomed to participate too.

The 26th anniversary of the Operation Storm (Oluja) is afoot. Marked on August 5, this operation back in 1995 returned every bit of occupied territory back to Croatia, apart from Eastern Slavonia. The event took place during the 1990s in the war Croats refer to as the Homeland War (Croatian: Domovinski rat).

In the light of the anniversary that is set to take place this Thursday, the Croatian branch of Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) has organised an online panel entitled ''The 26th anniversary of Operation Storm: Challenges and obstacles for reconciliation'' this Wednesday.

As the YIHR website announces, the panel, which will be held via Zoom, will feature a debate moderated by the initiative's coordinator of programmes for justice and reconciliation, Branka Vierda, while the speakers will be Jelena Đureinović and Sven Milekić.

Dr. sc. Jelena Đureinović is a historian and coordinator of ''Transformation and Eastern Europe'', at the Austrian University of Vienna. She earned a Ph.D. in modern and contemporary history at Giessen University in Germany. Her fields of interest are the politics and culture of memory in Yugoslavia and the Ex-YU area. In 2020, Routledge published her book ''Politics of Memory of the Second World War in Contemporary Serbia: Collaboration, Resistance and Retribution'', and she cooperates with a Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade as memorialisation programme coordinator.

Sven Milekić is a scholar of the Science Foundation Fund Ireland and a Ph.D. candidate at Ireland's Maynooth University. As part of his research, he is interested in founding and developing veteran associations and exploring how they formed a dominant narrative regarding the war back in the 90's. In 2010, he got his MA at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Zagreb. He cooperates with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), where up until 2018, Milekić worked as a journalist, covering topics including justice, politics, economy, and society. Until 2014, he worked as a coordinator for the Transitional Justice Programme at YIHR.

Established back in late 2008 by a group of young human rights activists in Croatia in consultations and with the support of the regional organisation, YIHR is a non-profit, non-governmental organisation that claims it is convinced that the sanctity of human life is the sole foundation and fundamental value of every open and prosperous society.

''To live in responsible and accountable societies that have learned the lessons of the past and strive towards a positive future based on the respect of human rights, civic values and the rule of law,'' states YIHR when describing its vision.

The Operation Storm panel (for which you must register in order to participate) will discuss expectations for this year's anniversary in both Croatia and Serbia, symbolic gestures and actual social change, a new law on civil casualties of the war, perspectives on the same law in Serbia, as well as on perspectives for war crime processes and the concept of ''isolated incidents'' which could be deemed war crimes during and after the operation. Other topics that include building mutual trust and good relations in the future will also include questions and participation from the audience.

''Last year's anniversary was marked by changes in the official policy towards Operation Storm, known in Croatia as Victory Day (Dan Pobjede) and as the Day of Homeland Gratitude (Dan Domovinske Zahvalnosti). August 2020 saw the public space filled with messages about reconciliation, dialogue, the the importance of facts, condolences for war crime victims, and appeals for a conversation about different views on Operation Storm in both Croatia and Serbia,'' they recalled from YIHR.

They added that the speech of Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković on last year's anniversary can be thanked for the above. Plenković also visited Varivode where Croatian soldiers killed nine Serbian civilians. President Zoran Milanović, along with veteran Minister Tomo Medved, visited Grubori, where six Serbian civilians were killed. At the same time, Boris Milošević's attendance during last year's Operation Storm commemoration was the first time in history that a high representative of the Serbian minority in Croatia attended the ceremony.

The downside, however, as YIHR warned, was the medal ceremony for the special police that was lead by Zlatan Mijo Jelić, who is under investigation for allegedly committing crimes against humanity against civilians and prisoners of war.

Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić organised last year's commemoration of what he refers to as the victims of Operation Storm, but without taking responsibility for denying protection to the Serbian refugees from Croatia and for the forced mobilisation of the said refugees.

With several downsides, but many upsides in Croatian terms when approaching this enormously important historical event, this year's anniversary will show whether or not the positive progress will continue or if the overall unusual year of 2020 was a mere one off.

Learn more about Croatian politics and history from the 1990s on our TC page.

For more about science in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page.

Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Minister Tomo Medved: Central Celebration of Operation Storm to be Held at Knin Stadium

ZAGREB, 27 July, 2021 - The 26th anniversary of Operation Storm will be organised in accordance with epidemiological measures and the central celebration will be held at the football stadium in Knin, while the ceremonial part will take place at the Knin Fortress, Veterans' Affairs Minister Tomo Medved said on Tuesday.

Based on guidance from the Croatian Public Health Institute on compliance with coronavirus restrictions, it has been assessed that the Knin stadium is the best place to organise a dignified commemoration of this important date in our recent history while respecting the epidemiological measures, Medved told a press conference after a meeting of Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and relevant cabinet ministers with representatives of the association of retired Croatian army generals.

Before the commemoration, senior state officials will lay wreaths in front of the monument to the casualties and the 1991-1995 Homeland War.

Asked whether he expected representatives of the Serb minority to attend, after Deputy Prime Minister Boris Milošević of the Independent Democratic Serbian Party (SDSS) attended last year's ceremony, Medved said that an agreement had not yet been reached as to which cabinet members would be attending.

Reporters were also interested in hearing whether anyone from the Croatian Defence Force (HOS), the paramilitary arm of the right-wing Croatian Party of Rights,  would attend, Medved said that the position of the Council for Facing the Past was clear and that all components of the Croatian army and police, as well as associations of Homeland War veterans and casualties, would be invited to attend that important anniversary.

Miljavac: The problem is that young people are being recruited with HOS insignia

The head of the association of retired army generals, Pavao Miljavac, said that the association supports the idea for the commemoration to be held at the stadium due to the COVID-19 situation.

As for HOS's participation in the war, Miljavac said that its members need to be honoured as they went to defend Croatia without any ideology.

"The problem to me is that young people, 19 or 20 year olds,  are again being recruited with HOS insignia," said Miljavac and quoted the late president Franjo Tuđman as saying: "Had we continued down that path, Croatia would hardly have been recognised."

During the meeting, the participants discussed disagreements over the Civilian Casualties of the Homeland War Act.

Miljavac underscored that the minister assured them that the law would be implemented in such a way that it will minimise any possible abuse of the law.

"Strict coordination will be conducted between the Interior Ministry and Croatian defenders. We have a list of who was where - almost 95%, so that it will be strictly implemented, and there shouldn't be any abuse," he said.

For more about politics in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated page

Friday, 16 July 2021

Milanović: Pressure on Half the Population Politically Not Intelligent

ZAGREB, 16 July 2021 - President Zoran Milanović said on Friday 50% of Croatia's population did not and, for some reason, would not get vaccinated, adding that pressure on half the population was politically not intelligent.

"If it was 15% of people, that would not be important because we would be on the verge of collective immunity. What's the point of this pressure on half the population? That's not even politically intelligent," he told the press in Požega.

He said that those who wanted to get vaccinated did so and that others could not be terrorised into doing so, and that he doesn't approve of the direction that is being taken.

He added that if his secretary, for example, did not get vaccinated, he would not sack her.

Milanović said Croatia could not have a separate approach to curbing the pandemic, as it is an EU member state but added that, out of fear from voters, there was talk of repression and threats.

He said he was not happy about threats against certain groups of people, but added that medical workers and those caring for the elderly and the ill were one thing, while all others who more or less work in normal jobs should therefore be allowed to decide whether to get vaccinated.

Milanović said that those in charge should explain why a neighbour, for example, should get vaccinated and if they did not, why their life should become impossible.

"It all boils down to not overwhelming the system, but the system is always overwhelmed," he added.

He said that for one year Croatia has had an approach to public policy and restrictions of fundamental human rights, without the parliamentary majority having decided on that.

"States vary. Healthcare isn't centralised and won't be, as far as I'm concerned... I need autonomy from the EU. This is a sort of fear of voters, which is good, but this panic, the danger of someone getting sick... I'm not saying the intentions of the people running big states are dictatorial, they are not, but at one point, you have to say 'it's over' like the British."

Organised plunder of Zagreb

Speaking of an anti-corruption investigation in Zagreb which has resulted in the arrest of a number of former mayor Milan Bandić's associates, Milanović said that what Zagreb went through in the past 20 years was worse than communism because in communism people did not steal.

He called it an organised plunder of the city and that he said so when he ousted Bandić from his then Social Democratic Party.

As for former president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović's possible candidacy for NATO secretary-general, Milanović said he would not have anything against that.

Operation Storm anniversary

Speaking of the 1995 Operation Storm anniversary in Knin on 5 August, he said he would participate but that he did not see the point in lining up the army at a stadium on a non-jubilee anniversary. He assumes that "some people want to avoid an unpleasant situation at the Knin square."

Speaking of two fire-fighting planes that were being overhauled, he said Croatia would buy something else because it was a matter of national interest. "If Croatia can buy 12 multipurpose jets, then you can buy two more fire-fighting planes."

For more on politics in Croatia, CLICK HERE.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Veterans Minister: Knin Remains Central Location for Operation Storm Commemoration

ZAGREB, 4 June 2021 - War Veterans Minister Tomo Medved said on Friday the 5 August 1995 Operation Storm would be commemorated across the country but that Knin remained the central place for the Victory Day celebration.

He was commenting on President Zoran Milanović's proposal that this year Victory Day be commemorated in Glina instead of Knin.

Speaking to the press in Petrinja, Medved said 50 towns and municipalities had been financed every year since 2016 where Operation Storm was commemorated, notably in previously occupied areas, adding that the Croatian Army's symbolic victory near Glina had not been forgotten.

That's why, he said, the government and he as the minister of war veterans stand by their position that Operation Storm will continue to be commemorated across the country, but that Knin, as the central point of the victory in the 1991-95 Homeland War, remains the central location for the commemoration.

Medved said Knin was a "symbol of our victory" and that "ours as well as all future generations have the obligation to value that symbol of victory."

Asked "what if veterans and generals propose commemorating at another location," Medved said someone was evidently always looking for a motive for discussions.

He recalled everything the Andrej Plenković cabinet had done for veterans since 2016.

Medved said a big commemoration was held in Glina two years ago and that the commemoration in Knin had been a tradition since 1995. 

He also said that there were 150 mass execution sites and graves in Croatia, including 44 in Sisak-Moslavina County, such as Baćin, the second largest mass grave after Ovčara.

Post-earthquake reconstruction

As head of the task force dealing with the aftermath of last December's earthquake in Sisak-Moslavina County, he said damaged and unsafe buildings were being demolished and that reconstruction had been stepped up.

He said the Central State Reconstruction and Housing Office had already reconstructed 60 houses, that over 100 were undergoing reconstruction, that studies for the reconstruction of 3,000 would be ready this week, and that contracts for the reconstruction of over 6,000 houses would be signed by 15 July.

For more on politics in Croatia, follow TCN's dedicated politics page.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Operation Storm: Foreign Reflections on a Visit to Oluja 2020 in Knin

September 12, 2020 - It is over a month since Croatia celebrated the 25th anniversary of Operation Storm. Some reflections from a foreigner who attended Oluja 2020 in Knin.

(Author's note - I had intended to write this article some time ago, much sooner after the event, but time was against me)

Although I have been fortunate to have travelled the world, visiting almost 100 countries and living in 10, I have yet to meet a region quite like the one here. Every country has its different viewpoints from those who live and visit it, but this region seems to excel in that regard. Perspective is usually heavily influenced by personal experience, and never was this more true than in this most divided of regions. Attitudes to the Homeland War differ vastly between Croats who were in Istria or Vukovar, for example. Even more so between Sarajevo and Belgrade. 

Although I have lived in Croatia now full-time for 17 years, it took me a number of years to realise that my perspective was out of sync with almost everyone else. Arriving on Hvar in August 2002, I found a touristic paradise, which would soon become my new home as I bought a house in Jelsa a month later. Although it was just seven years since the war had ended, there was little trace of that on Hvar, where the tourism industry was recovering nicely, and the lack of physical scars of war meant that the recent past did not really touch me. I lived for years in that naive bubble, and the recent past only entered it in the first week of August each year, when Croatia celebrated its holiday, Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day and the Day of Croatian Defenders.

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While I now completely understand the raw emotions of the occasion, for years, this day in Jelsa left me cold and I avoided the town on that day. One of the things I often get tarnished with as a Brit here is the actions and meddling of the British Government both here and elsewhere. As a former aid worker, I spent most of my time in Africa when not working apologising for actions done in my name as a British citizen. Extreme displays of nationalism - whatever the country - are things I tend to run from, although the more I understand Croatia after that initial bubble, the more I understand the nationalist pride of this very young nation which successfully fought against all the odds for its freedom. 

August 5 is the date that this is celebrated, and the focal point each year is in Knin, the liberation of which in 1995 was part of the biggest land battle in Europe since World War II. Operation Storm was a complete triumph for Croatia, liberated almost 20% of the county in days, averted another Srebrenica in Bihac, and effectively brought the war to an end after four years of bloody fighting and occupation. What is not to celebrate?

Due to my perspective and lack of deeper understanding of the situations, I consciously avoided all mention of both Vukovar and August 5 in Knin for many years. With so many perspectives and experiences that were much more involved and painful than my own, there would have been little of value to add, as well as the inevitable offence taken by the words of a Brit who either did not understand or had an alleged agenda. 

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But then last November, just before the annual Vukovar Remembrance Parade on November 18, I decided to visit. I had read a lot about Vukovar and what happened in those tragic months in 1991, but there was nothing online in English about the experience of attending the annual remembrance day, which is one of the most important dates in the Croatian calendar. And, not for the first time in Croatia, what I found on the ground in Vukovar was very different to the perceptions that I had been given from second-hand sources. You can read my experience in Vukovar Remembrance Day Through the Eyes of a Foreign Resident.

And, having been to Vukovar, it was time to attend the annual event in Knin at Oluja 2020. As I left my house in Varazdin at 4am to pick up my press accreditation by 9am, I was sure that this was going to be a difficult day, and not one I was going to enjoy. 

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But, just like my day in Vukovar, what I found on the ground was very different to my expectations, one of the most dignified and measured victory celebrations I have seen. And one with some very large seeds of hope in the future. 

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(Population of Knin, source Wikipedia)

There are two very different perspectives on Operation Storm, which is seen as a great liberation by Croatia, while Serbs see it as both a disaster and massive ethnic cleansing of a region which had been majority Serb for generations. That is not a debate for me to get into, but what is undisputed is that the population shifts from 1991 to 1995 were significant. Firstly, many Croats fled from the newly-established Krajina Republic, which brought the Serb population up to 88%, before Oluja completely reversed those numbers, as Serb civilians took the path of their retreating army towards Belgrade.  What is beyond argument was that Operation Storm was a stunning military tactical and operational success, which completely turned the tide of the war, while liberating occupied Croatia.

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(Serb MP Boris Milosevic, left)

Oluja 2020 was the 25th anniversary of Operation Storm. It is a national event each year, broadcast live on national television and attended by all the senior politicians and other dignitaries. Among them was General Ante Gotovina, who was instrumental in commanding the success of the operation. This year's event was also historic for the appearance of a Serb politician for the first time, with Croatian government representative Boris Milosevic from the Independent Democratic Serb Party (SDSS) took his place in the front row. As a further symbol of some seeds of reconciliation, the government announced that Milosevic, the Croatian Government's Vice-President for Social Affairs and Human Rights, would accompany Veterans Minister Tomo Medved to lay a wreath in the village of Grubori, north of Knin, where several elderly Serbs were killed less than 3 weeks after Operation Storm. 

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I wasn't sure what to expect as I picked up my press pass, but I was surprised to see that I was the only foreign journalist covering the event. While the main event was in Knin's central square and timed to include the 09:43 arrival of Croatian troops in the city, all eyes were on its imposing fortress, where the flag of liberation was raised at exactly 09:46. This was carried live on a giant screen on the main square and was clearly a moment of intense pride and emotion for every Croat watching. 

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I was surprised at how empty the main square was. Social distancing - of people and weaponry - had come to Oluja 2020 apparently.

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The weapons were soon taken up by the soldiers to whom they were allocated. 

And a bearing of arms followed.  

(The raising of the flag at 09:46 - click if video above unavailable)

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Centre stage in the front row was Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, President Zoran Milanovic and General Ante Gotovina, all of whom gave speeches.

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You can learn more about Gotovina's speech in Gotovina: We Are Stronger and Better people, Ready to Work for a Better Tomorrow.

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Much was made of social distancing, with the lecturn disinfected between after every speech, although this initiative was somewhat undone by the President, who shook the hands of both the General and the Prime Minister to congratulate them on their speeches.  

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It must have been an intense day for General Gotovina, who hid his emotions well, but clearly felt the name of each fallen soldier as their names were read out.  

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The whole event was extremely dignified, conciliatory, full of remembrance and pride at the considerable achievement of liberation a quarter of a century ago - a perfect tone. Impressive stuff. 

After two Croatian MiG fighters flew overhead (a little too quickly for this aspiring photographer to document), it was time to take a walk around town, and I soon realised why things were so quiet on the main square. 

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A line of masked policemen were preventing the marchers from proceeding, the first time this has happened apparently. It was still early in the day, but the atmosphere was good-humored and celebratory. 

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There were, of course, some souvenirs on offer that one would perhaps not find at Advent in Zagreb, but the atmosphere was a lot less intimidating than I had been expecting. 

As the dignitaries headed on to Mass, I decided to go in another direction - in search of this Serb village of Grubori, scene of that 1995 massacre and soon to be the symbol of another seed of reconciliation with the visit of Medved and Milosevic (this event took place on August 26, with President Milanovic and SDSS leader Milorad Pupovac also in attendance).

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That Grubori visit took place three weeks after Oluja 2020 - I was trying to find it on my own on the day. The first surprise was that Google Maps had never heard of it. Indeed, it didn't seem to exist at all online, apart from those terrible events on August 1995. A Croatian colleague told me to head to a village called Plavno, 30km north of Knin, and then to ask. 

I have been to some desolated spots in the Balkans in my time, but this one was right up among them. Finally arriving at Plavno, a seemingly almost deserted place and former heartland of Serb population in the Knin region, a local man in his string vest put his head out of the window at the sound of a rare car.

Grubori? There is no sign. Over the bridge and then the rough road to the right.

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I think I got to the right place, but if not, it was one of several very similar. Abandoned, overgrown, forgotten. Like so many villages on both sides in this region.  

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Going back to Plavno, I was surprised to see a well-tended Serb graveyard, the graves maintained and many with fresh flowers. There seemed to be almost nobody in the area at all.  

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Appearances were misleading, however, and it seems that the church has regular community gatherings.  

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Indeed, the only other person I saw in the entire area was a Serb woman sitting in her yard cleaning vegetables, a rusting washing machine for company. The other side of 25 years of Oluja.  

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From Grubori to Cavoglave, a focal point of the Oluja celebrations each year, as well as a reminder of the fierce fighting and suffering that took place here.

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Croatia might have won its independence, but the cost was high, and the pain and memories remain. 

Did my perspective change somewhat with a visit to Oluja 2020? Yes, for sure. The balance of celebration, remembrance and looking forward was a difficult one to get right, but the overall impression was a superbly organised event which struck completely the right balance. These are small beginnings, but encouraging ones.  

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While moves towards reconciliation are welcome, there are more pressing problems to deal with. This building overlooking the main square was a symbol of another more immediate problem once the celebrations of independence subside. With restricted access to the main square event, one might have assumed that the balconies in surrounding buildings offering a grandstand view would be popular. But I counted just 10 of the 36 terraces in use, and the majority of the other apartments shuttered up. My initial thought was that this was perhaps due to the Serb exodus 25 years ago, but I was told locally that the population of the Knin workforce has declined 20% in the last 12 months alone. The owners are more likely to be found in Dublin, Munich or Stockholm. 

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It was quite a day.  I learned a lot. I arrived in the morning with a sense of trepidation, and I left in the afternoon with a feeling of hope. There is a long way to go, but I had a feeling that I had witnessed an important first step on a journey.  

Bravo, Hrvatska, on an outstanding example of how to remember the past, celebrate freedom, and look to the future. 

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