Voices from a War Zone

By Pelka, Fred | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview

Voices from a War Zone


Pelka, Fred, The Humanist


Route E-70 south from Zagreb is nearly deserted. In former times, this was a main road for trucks traveling from Slovenia through Croatia to Belgrade and beyond. But no more. Just south of Pakrac is the border of Serb occupied Croatia, beyond which non-Serbs dare not travel. It's Saturday morning, the summer sun is already hot, and to either side of the highway cornfields sway in tidy rows to a horizon of rolling hills.

I'm traveling with two counselors from the Kareta Women's Group, heading for the town of Lipik at the edge of Serb-occupied territory. Kareta, founded in the spring of 1990 after the first free elections in Croatian history, works with refugees and rape survivors from Croatia and Bosnia Hercegovina. At the United Nations Protective Forces (UNPROFOR) checkpoint, Jordanian soldiers--some behind sandbags, one perched behind a machine gun on an armored personnel carrier--check our identification and wave us through. This roadblock marks the high water mark of Serb conquest in Croatia, before the U.N.-brokered ceasefire allowed the Serbian army to turn south to destroy Bosnia,Hercegovina.

On the unoccupied side, it's still possible to believe that these are normal times in a rural backwater in central Europe. Driving on, though, the scene changes. Lipik has been completely destroyed, not a house or building left standing. I'm reminded of Lidice, the Czech village desolated by the Nazis in World War II. Lipik was attacked in 1991 by Serbian artillery and heavy weapons. Each shattered wall, without exception, is scarred by machine gun fire, some of them marked with the black letters "JNA"

More than 250,000 people have been killed in the push for a "Greater Serbia" There are roughly 100 concentration camps in the occupied territories of Croatia and Bosnia, Herce govina, and inside Serbia itself. More than a quarter of Croatia and three quarters of Bosnia-Hercegovina have been occupied by Serb militia together with Serbian troops armed and supplied by the Milosevic government in Belgrade. More than two million Bosnians and Croatians have been driven from their homes. And according to the European Commission, there are 20,000 women survivors who have been systematically raped as part of the Serbian campaign of "ethnic cleansing" The Bosnian government puts that figure at 50,000 for Bosnia-Hercegovina alone.

"First they bombed Lipik,' our driver tells us as we wind through streets recently cleared of rubble. "Then they shelled it. Their tanks blasted at the buildings from point-blank range. After that they went through tossing hand grenades into whatever buildings were still standing"

The Serb attack on Croatia, launched in March 1991, was premeditated and brutal. Roy Gutman, in A Witness to Genocide, describes how "paramilitary forces organized in Serbia began the offensive by launching military attacks on cities in eastern Slavonia, but after it was clear that no outside power would intervene, the [Serb dominated Yugoslav] army took the offensive in August... " The JNA, or Yugoslav National Army, is one of the largest in Europe. Against its heavy artillery, tanks, and jet aircraft the Croatian police and civilian volunteers had mostly rifles and pistols. "In September [1991], at American and British behest, the U.N. Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Yugoslavia and all its component parts. The Serbs, who enjoyed an enormous advantage in weapons, were supportive" It is estimated that as many as 25,000 Croatians and other non Serb citizens of Croatia were killed or disappeared during the first six months of the attack.

It's important to recount this history because Western perceptions of what happened in Croatia, and what is happening now in Bosnia Hercegovina, have been clouded by four years of disinformation. Some of this comes from ignorance, as when the JNA was described by the international press as impartial and trying only to separate the warring parties. …

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