After the Storm: A Croatian woman's experience working for UNHCR after the Balkan War

She stood in the middle of the field. The tall grass rising and delicately blowing with the rhythm of the silent wind. She stood still- unsure of what to do next. Why didn’t she see the signs- the signs reading: CAUTION: BEWARE OF LANDMINES.

  Where were they? Could she return the way she came or was she just fortunate that she had not stepped on one before? Which way did she come? The tall green grass was suddenly threatening, unforgiving and deceiving. Like a wonderful friend she had believed all along that she could trust only to discover it was all a façade. Would there be trip wire exposed somewhere that she could at least trace? Even her own footsteps suddenly became a foe to vanquish. How far into the field had she run?

 What if she just went for it? Just took a leap by suddenly scattering out of there and where, indeed was “out”? There was no fine line indicating to her where the turmoil began and ended. Just like this whole experience.

 Her mind raced, unstopping- pounding with thousands of “what if” scenarios at the same time. What does she know about land mines? She knew one thing- she was alone and if she stepped on one she had no way to call for help even if she survived.

 She closed her eyes. She opened them. She realized the grim truth: there was nothing indicating to her where they could be and there was no guarantee that she would be safe if she attempted a quick dash out.

 Ever so slowly she took her first step. She knew if she had to navigate her way back she must do it carefully. She must block all the illogical, scattered thoughts and focus just on each step. Each tiny baby step as each was taking her closer and closer back home…

 The Balkan Peninsula in Eastern Europe is home to some of the continent’s most enticing seas and land. Surrounded by three different bodies of water and complete with rolling majestic mountains in the in-land areas, the Balkan Peninsula is a prime vacation spot for many Europeans.

However, the series of wars occurring in the Balkans from the early 1990s until midway into the decade were some of the bloodiest and most fierce levels of conflict in modern history. Complete with ethnic cleansing, genocides, intimidation, humiliation, religious extremism and fierce nationalism- the politics and situations surrounding it are quite complex for outsiders of the region to understand and empathize with due to the various ethnic groups involved in the conflicts.

The “Balkan War” actually refers to a series of battles that took place in various regions of the former Yugoslavia. In the United States, we often refer to it as the “Bosnian War” and while that is true, we fail to realize that war broke out in many republics of the former Yugoslavia prior to the Bosnia conflict.

Although now a thing of the past, the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia used to include a central government governing six republics (Slovenia,CroatiaMontenegroBosniaSerbiaMacedonia and two autonomous regions (KosovoVojvodina).

Map of the former Yugoslavia

Map of the former Yugoslavia

Although just how and when the Balkan war started is debatable: Many argue that it began in the autonomous region of Kosovo when Slobodan Milosevic, under direction of the former President of Yugoslavia, Ivan Stambolic, went there in April 1987 to moderate a dispute between the ethnic Serbian and ethnic Albanian populations. It was there that he uttered the famous words “you will not be beaten again” and subsequently returned to Belgrade, Serbia only to oust the Yugoslav President Ivan Stambolic and take over as the Serbian Communist leader and eventually the leader of Yugoslavia.

After Milosevic came into power, the word “Yugoslavia” took on an entirely different definition, as he garnished control of the federal Yugoslav army. Yugoslavia’s definition became the “new Serbian nation” instead of meaning 6 republics and two autonomous regions as it had before.

In the beginning Milosevic was able to gain control of Montenegro, and the autonomous region of Vojvodina, but he struggled with Kosovo because of the Albanian population. When Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in the early 1990s, he was unable to gain control of Slovenia and later gave up on it, stating that there were “not enough Serbians living in this territory for it to be of imminent concern”.

Milosevic’s ultimate goal was to create across the Balkans a unified state of Serbian brotherhood- he set about this goal sparking nationalism in ethnic Serbians residing in many of the Balkan republics: namely Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The nationalism he bred was ultimately responsible for the battles in different parts of Croatia as well as the war in Bosnia and the Bosnian Serb army’s uprisings.

After that, ethnic Serbs in coordination with the Yugoslav people’s army (which Milosevic controlled) began rebellions across the border areas of Croatia and this is when many of the heavy battles of the Balkan war began and when Nationalism reared at its peak. Two of the most notable are in the town Kninwhere ethnic Serbian police officers began to rebel and in the town of Vukovar,where Croatian soldiers battled with ethnic nationalist Serbs and the Yugoslav people’s army to prevent Serbians from taking Vukovar and annexing it. Vukovar saw a significant amount of ethnic cleansing of Croats in this period of time. It was not long before ethnic nationalist Serbs in Croatia had garnished a large amount of territory along the border of Bosnia and Serbia.

Map of Croatia displaying the territory taken by Serbian nationalists

Territory within Croatia taken by ethnic nationalist Serbians within the country.The red areas denote Serb controlled regions

These territories were held for some time until what is known as Operation Storm.

The war between Croatia and Serbia ended for the most part by 1992 and moved into Bosnia with the rise of Ratko MladicRadovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb army, although there were still occupied territories on the border of Croatia near Bosnia and Serbia.

Operation Storm was a large-scale military operation carried out by the Croatian Armed Forces in conjunction with the Army of the Republic of Bosnia in 1995. The largest land offensive since WW2, the operation lasted 84 hours and was a complete victory for Croatia. The goal was to free the occupied territories in Croatia that ethnic Serbs had taken over.

In the days prior to Operation Storm the United Nations anticipated mass casualties to result from the planned attack. In effort to save lives and minimize the predicted casualties the United Nations took large trucks and rounded up all the elderly, children and women and relocated them to holding camps in Serbia. The goal was ultimately to remove them out of the line of danger since they knew Operation Storm was coming and that the Croatian army would attack. The people who they took and displaced were mainly people who identified themselves as “orthodox” and thus considered “Serbian”.

Then 19 years old and working for the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) Silvija, a Croatian, found herself dealing with the aftermath of what fierce nationalism had left behind in her country: a horrifying problem of refugees and displaced persons caused not only by Operation Storm but by a series of decisions made by the Croatian government in effort to define the meaning of the “ideal” Croatian citizen.

“Its hard when you go from a country where you have six states and you’re Yugoslavian to suddenly overnight you have to say ‘I’m Croatian, I’m Serbian’ ” she explained to me very directly. “This is what created a lot of nationalism among people in the towns in the early 1990s”.

The situation, however, did not just depend on nationality but came to a matter of religion. “Croatians are generally Catholic and Serbians are generally Orthodoxso religions somehow got into the mix. When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia and declared its own sovereign state; people suddenly had to declare themselves and their religion. Those who declared their religion as “Orthodox” were automatically considered “Serbian”, thus enemy of the state. Although, many of these people had lived in Croatia their entire lives. In other words, the orthodox “Serbians” that were displaced by UNHCR in anticipation of Operation Storm were really just Orthodox Croatians”.

Operation Storm was a complete success and with no actual fighting. The Serbian army  withdrew and left overnight. Although this was fortunate on the side of potential casualties, on the other side tens of thousands of people were still displaced and could not return home.

In the meantime, the Croatian government had the initiative and thought of populating Croatia with “Croatians”.

The president of Croatia went to an impoverished village in Kosovo calledJanjevo, which had a high population of Catholics. “Suddenly people from Janjevo, Kosovo that never saw Croatia in their lives, became Croatians. They were physically placed in this region in Croatia. The houses of the Orthodox people who were displaced by UN were populated with the people from Janjevo.Now you have people who were put on a truck and shipped out who just want to come back and then they started returning by taking buses or hitchhiking. They would return and find that someone is living in their house- that it’s basically occupied. Of course people who were in those houses were given those houses and thus they don’t have any place to go- so they are holding onto them for dear life” Silvija explained to me.

Janjevo, Kosovo Creative commons attribution: rribisi

In this period of time Silvija worked diligently with the UNHCR in order to quell this displaced persons problem. She told me of the trying situations she was subjected to during her employment with UNHCR, situations that were surreal and often jarring. “I remember one guy coming into the office with a hole in his skull. He had been shot in the head because he refused to give up his house. He was Orthodox. He kept saying to me ‘I’m a Croatian.’ That was his house and his land. That experience always stayed with me”.

At one point, Silvija was sent to the town of Vukovar on a mission where notable battles took place between Serbian nationalists and Croats and where a heavy amount of ethnic cleansing previously occurred with the Croat citizens. Silvija described seeing buildings pricked with bullet holes. She illustrated the experience traveling down one side of a street where one side was quite picturesque and the other completely destroyed. This was the Croatian side.

Vukovar, Croatia main street. Creative Commons attribution m10692jk

From accidentally finding herself in a land mine field to living in a house of a seemingly displaced family, Silvija admitted above all that the experience was difficult because she had virtually no one to talk to about the things she experienced and witnessed. “I would return home to this eerie house at the end of the day and sometimes would just sit in the bathtub and just cry. Who was I going to call? My friends? They were out on the beaches for summer. My family? They had no idea what I was involved in”.

When I asked her to explain one of the main things she took away from this experience she said she went away with one burning question:

“My main question through this whole experience has always been: Where does humanity stop? At what point do you not care about another person anymore? I have seen the effects of nationalism first hand. I have seen the blind hatred that nationalism brings out in people. They don’t know why they hate, they simply hate. There is a point where their minds stop working as humans and start working as machines”.

Admittedly, Americans have no concept of what nationalism really even is. The war in the Balkans: Croatia, Bosnia Kosovo, Albania was fueled by it. Overnight, people that were neighbors in villages for decades suddenly turned on one another. They killed each other; they tortured each other, all in the name of identification with one ethnic group. Imagine: the person living in the house next to you, who you went to school with through childhood, whose children now play with your children is suddenly your enemy and practically overnight. Not just your enemy, but enemy of the state as well. This is a puzzling and surreal part of human nature. How can a being be so capable of empathy yet so capable of searing hatred at the same time?

I understand Silvija’s experience on one common ground: humanitarian work stays with you and stays deep inside. The cases affect you to the depths of your person and your identity. The tears of the people you advocate for become your own, and their struggles become your own. You form friendships with certain people making the connection even stronger and more involved. The more involved I have become in the lives of certain Asylee friends of mine, the more I have cried for them. I don’t think that admitting this makes me weak. This is really the connection that you form- something so real and so deep that it shakes you to the core. A raw, human connection unlike most of the other loose connections we make everyday. Through this you realize that all the fancy, overrated things in life do not even matter. All the “fluff” is nothing. In the end, it’s the genuine connection that matters. It’s the genuine connection that prevails and remains. I feel that I made that connection with Silvija when I interviewed her…

For more background on the situation in the Balkans watch the documentary “The Death of Yugoslavia”.

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