Post-War Nationalism and Coping
with Powerlessness in Croatian Villages
after violent displacement
Depending upon one’s perspective, this article refers to villages in ‘Krajina’ or villages in the ‘Formerly Occupied Territories of the Republic of Croatia’. What is certain is that they are located in an area between a main Croatian transit road and the new border with Bosnia Herzegovina. As an activist working with a dialogue project, I had access to people in a set of five such villages within one municipality of Croatia.1 Walking into the villages in the late 1990s, visitors would first of all be struck by the contrast between Plavo, consisting entirely of newly built houses, and Bijelo and its surrounding villages, where the visible remains of material destruction were still shocking. In the latter inhabitants had only just begun to repair the ruins using the UNHCR plastic sheeting common to all post-war settings in the region. Not much economic activity was taking place apart from a timber mill and some subsistence agriculture, which was greatly impeded by several minefields. Further landmarks included a police station and a bar across the road from it mainly frequented by the numerous police officers, some remnants of destroyed Partisan monuments and an enormous Croatian flag on the central crossroads.
The relatively few inhabitants of these villages in the late 1990s were on the whole elderly and female. One thing that could not strike the visitor upon arrival would be signs of the national composition of the population: differences in this domain were neither visible nor audible. Diametrically opposed narratives of the past claimed either a historical Serbian or Croatian majority; but attempting to avoid the terror of national mathematics, I would argue that the area had been nationally mixed for centuries, with smaller villages often including large majorities of one or the other nationality.2 Unsurprisingly, the region’s recent history was subject to an intense struggle of representation. During WWII, a key moment in all versions of local history, the region was the scene of horrific violence, which pitted Croatian fascist Ustase against multi-ethnic (but in this area mainly Serbian) communist-led Partisans. Massacres and starvation left few, if any, families intact, an enormous demographic and political legacy that later determined a good part of the power balance in Yugoslavia. Of the villages in question, Bijelo had been the main centre with a mixed but majority-Serbian population. Reflecting participation in the Partisan army, there had been a high degree of Party membership, with a similar pattern as in the smaller and predominantly