The Likes of Me: a dispatch from Jasmina Tesanovic

"Lunchtime at Rosa House, a woman-run shelter in Zagreb, Croatia. Photo by Center for Women War Victims. From "The Suitcase: Refugee Voices from Bosnia and Croatia."

A couple of days ago, the two former members of the Croatian military won a "not guilty" sentence in the Hague international war crime tribunal.

   I was not present in the general headquarters of the Croatian army while they were deciding on their "Operation Storm" action of 1995.  I don't know if the telephone rang there.  I also don't know if President Bill Clinton personally told them to go ahead with the largest land offensive since World War II, because the CIA would help.  That is what certain Serbian newspapers published recently.

     I have a remarkable lack of knowledge about world paramilitary conspiracies, secret chambers in the Vatican,  mysterious double-agents doing their jobs badly. Generally, the things I know are in the public domain, because  people said these things publicly and I took notes, or because I was just personally standing there.

   Consider those days in August 1995, when that "Operation Storm" took place. I stood at the border between Croatia and Serbia, watching the endless caravan of people fleeing on truckbeds, in their cars, on foot, in nightgowns, in torn Serbian uniforms, with guns and babies. I talked to those people.  I took photos: I personally saw newborn refugees carried in shoe boxes, babies who were born during the exodus of ethnic Serbs fleeing the Croatian army.

"Dreams of home in a gymnasium of strangers." Photo: Lisa Kahane, 1995. From "The Suitcase: Refugee Voices from Bosnia and Croatia."

      I saw angry Serbian soldiers tearing off their military insignia because they were given orders by their military to abandon the region without fighting. I also saw people being given food and shelter by the local Serbian population.  I heard the refugee stumbling towards an unknown destiny, since they had lost everything.

    Operation Storm put a swift and sudden end in to four years of fighting for Serbian autonomy inside Croatia.   The plans for a Greater Serbia torn from the fabric of Yugoslavia had been crushed by 150,000 Croatian Army troops.   I heard the fleeing Serbs saying how rich and happy they had been in their rural homes.  They had Croatian accents -- if you ask me, that is, a woman with a Belgrade accent.  They'd been born in Croatia of a people established there for centuries,  but they were keenly aware of being Serbian Orthodox non-Catholic non-Croats.

       They rejected a Croatian identity and passport, preferring their own rules and ideas.  Their most important aspiration was to live within the Greater Serbia promised to them by Milosevic and his generals.  Some were kissing the Serbian flag and the picture of Milosevic.    Most of them were tearing the flag and swearing at the broken promises and the reeling military defeat of their beloved leader.

      Later, I saw the endless caravan of Krajina refugees being routed by the Serbian police outside Belgrade. Only those Serbs who had relatives in the capital were allowed enter the city. Naturally scarcely any of them could prove that. People within Belgrade did not see or hear the refugees, except for what the official Milosevic tv or radio allowed.  Of course that was a thoroughly censored version of events.

      I don't know where those people ended up.  Their exact number is vague, it varies in the telling,  from two hundred thousand to half a million displaced ethnic refugees.

    Later I lived as a  neighbor and friend to a family of four from Krajina.  They had managed to arrive that day in Belgrade, and their entire worldly goods consisted of one suitcase and their car.  The family was a man, his wife and their two teenaged sons. They were silent and bitter, never commenting on politics or speaking about their loss.

      The father and the boys found work immediately, humble physical jobs.  They rented two rooms in my courtyard house.  All day the wife washed long shirts and sheets, so that they would stay clean and decent. Rada was a beautiful woman who once had a nice job in the municipality of Knin. I would talk to Rada privately and she would tell me how upset she was by her fate.  She blamed the Serbian government for gambling with their lives.

     Rada hadn't blamed Serbia before, but now they were actually living in Serbia and knew what it was like.  It was a lesser Serbia rather than a greater one, and the state offered them no help: no legal papers, no money, no  real jobs.   When interviewed publicly, though, Rada would quickly change her story.  She grew eloquent with the patriotic male version of endless anti-Croatian lament and Serbian victimhood.

     I asked her why, she answered: because I told you a secret.  It's the Serbs who brought us misery and not the Croats, but don't tell anybody.

"First night under a roof for refugees from Krajina." Photo: Lisa Kahane, 1995. From "The Suitcase: Refugee Voices from Bosnia and Croatia."

      Things haven't changed so much since 1995, for the Serbian refugees from Croatia.   No jobs no money and no papers in Serbia: no jobs no papers and no houses in Croatia. Hardly any went back to ethnically cleansed Krajina.  When they did, they found that their homes and lands had been settled by other refugees, commonly Croatian ethnics thrown out of Bosnia or Serbia.  Some of these new arrivals were not dramatic refugees,  just everyday squatters and looters. In a war, everybody becomes uprooted.  If you don't already know who the victim is, then the victim is you.

   War crimes were committed on all sides, as people in Serbia are keen to point out.   The Hague tribunal promised to prosecute all such crimes without fear or favor.  That the Serbian army and government were especially bloodthirsty is a common knowledge in the world.  But the world is the world.

     But it's surprising how forgiving the world can be.  Serbia was in fact acquitted of the Srebrenica genocide some years ago; Serbia is not a "genocidal regime,"  it's just another small regional state.  A few days ago, it was further decided that "Operation Storm" and the pogroms that followed were not war crimes, just a Balkan military operation.  Serbia then, and Croatia now are celebrating their public innocence.  Of course the graves are still there.   One has to wonder how many of the survivors believe these findings of innocence.  About themselves, or the Other.

      During the shelling of Sarajevo, I asked  my cousin from Sarajevo about the situation.  She was a Serb, so she answered me confidentially: it our own people shelling my city.  But, don't tell anybody.

    Somehow, she really believed she could keep that fact a secret.  She also had a strange faith that sniper bullets fired downtown would hit only the Muslim enemy within her streets.

      Two years ago, I happened to meet a veteran Croatian soldier from Operation Storm.  Like a lot of demobilized soldiers, he was still fond of military gear, and he was wearing a "boonie hat" from an American pal who had served in Afghanistan.  We began talking, and who told me how he had "liberated" an eighty year old woman  in Krajina.  He'd saved her from captivity among her two adult sons, who were Serbs fighting the Croatian Army.   He was sure he had saved her life, and he really believed every word he said. > He too had a family, and he'd saved a captive mother from the clutches of her Serbian outlaws.

    I wrote these stories down, I took photos, because I wanted to bear witness, and not to forget.  I also want other people not to forget these tragedies, even though we must have the courage to go on as if the world has found us innocent.   We must live our lives in peace henceforth, as if this atrocities were not committed, and although most of them will stay forever unpunished.

     The courage to forgive should not mean to forget: I will never forget those three days on the Croatian border in  early August 1995, writing my book "The Suitcase." The contradictions and bitter disenchantment of those betrayed people is especially memorable.   But I am becoming old-fashioned, and my stories of bloody regional mayhem are frankly boring.   The world is a big place, with other, newer regions of slaughter, and Balkan tales are not global bestseller material.  They don't respect the time-honored James Bond canon of sex, snobbery and sadistic thrills, and even the weirdest Balkan conspiracy theories can't match up to a Dan Brown plot.

     Still, somebody has to do the dirty work.  Commonly, it is the women who collect the historical rubble.  So, let it be the likes of me.



  1. When I was a kid there would be a newspaper headline from Hamilton, Ontario about once a year about a garage full of Croatian kids blowing themselves up trying to make bombs to throw at the annual Serbian parade there.  They never actually got to the practical bomb stage; just the explosive which they couldn’t handle safely.  Sad, really, when you consider that neither they nor the Serbian kids they got into vicious fights with had ever, or would ever, visit their parents’ homelands: homelands that would soon be turned into burning wastelands due to behaviour like theirs.

    Even sadder is the pattern seen here which is common to most of these pointless Ethnic squabbles.  The people far to the rear of the conflict do nothing for the victims of their policies because then they can live in a fantasy world where they’re not the worst enemies of their own group.  The victims loudly defend their own betrayers out of stone age tribal loyalty.

  2. Since ethnic cleansing works and is not punished, it will happen again and again. See: the colonization of the US, Australia, and New Zealand, of Argentina and Chile, the emptying of the Scottish highlands, the Greek-Turkish war, the huguenots, moriscos, and many others.
    Many prosperous countries have it in their past and remember it only on special occasions. Serbia’s only problem is that it failed to carry it out. Croatia succeeded and now prospers.

    1. I have to take issue with the characterisation of New Zealand’s colonisation as an ‘ethnic cleansing’, given that the settlement here by Europeans was by treaty ( ); however flawed it was. 

      Maori culture has a substantial impact on most aspects of public life here and Maori constitute 35% of the population of my city. I’m pretty sure they haven’t been ethnically cleansed…

  3. I am Croatian and my parents let me choose what high school to go to in Canada. Catholic school with all my Croatian friends and church mates? Public school where I would rub shoulders with Serbians? I chose public school as it had a healthy arts program and never had issues with my class mates. I still hold these people as my friends. We never talked about the war as we attributed it to our parents and THEIR homelands. Most of us call ourselves Canadians first now.
    But I tend to think that my ethnic history keeps me deeply empathic to other strife happening today.

    1.  We never talked about the war as we attributed it to our parents and THEIR homelands. Most of us call ourselves Canadians first now.

      This ^^^ . Similarly, here in Chicago, the north side neighborhood of West Rogers Park is populated by Orthodox Jews and Muslims, who have lived side-by-side for years.  On Western Ave., Jewish men in wide-brimmed black fedoras walk past the Muslim-owned KFC (which advertises Halal Original Recipe and Crispy Strips on its sign, right under The Colonel).  I’ve been in Chicago for 15 years, and I’ve never heard of any neighborhood warfare between the two groups.  The conflict in their homeland probably isn’t entirely forgotten, but the ones that came here have more important things to do than fight each other. I suspect that if there’s a solution to ethnic conflict in general, we can find clue to it in your former high school and in neighborhoods like this.

  4. I feel bad for the Serbs in the Krajina – they had been living there for centuries, as I understand it.

    However, perhaps it’s also worth noting that Croatia’s Krajina offensive in 1995 also ended the war. In Richard Holbrook’s memoir, he points out that Operation Storm was the first time in the entire war that the Serb army suffered a setback. After this, he claims that the Serbian leadership realized that they wouldn’t get any more territory and so should seek a peace agreement. Prior to this, no one could get the Serbs to the negotiating table – after all, they had been winning. It’s sad that it took a tragedy to end a war.

    I don’t know where those people ended up.

    Germany took a large number of them. But around 2000 Germany asked them to “go home.” As pointed out in the post, most of them actually had no home to go back to, so they applied for refugee status elsewhere. The US took many of them and gave them permanent resident status, which I know because I helped process many of them when I worked with refugees in the US at this time.

  5. This is a very good article which evoked a lot of mixed emotions in me. I live in Zagreb, Croatia, and remember the war well. Luckily, I ‘only’ got to experience the running-to-shelters part, but parts of my family were forced to flee, literally overnight, to avoid certain death. A lot of ugly, ugly things happened, things that were boiling under the surface for years before exploding.

    It is sad that it took such an operation to end the war, but if you do not know how it is to follow line of defense on news day after day, watching it crawl closer and closer to you or people you know, hearing the darn sirens (I still involuntarily flinch when I heart that noise on TV or in movies), run like mad through empty streets, not have a future or a normal life for years, have people you love perish, watch your male relatives get drafted and sent to battlefields when they should be in college or offices, not knowing when or if this madness will ever end…   you cannot understand why it was necessary. This was not a Settlers of Catan game session, this was real life. Forget about Croatia’s independence, new republic, international recognition yadda yadda. I clearly remember that, when Oluja (Storm) ended, I felt only a huge relief because I didn’t have to fear for my life and lives of my loved ones any more. Can someone truly relate to that and honestly ask was Oluja necessary?

    Also, I am sure that war crimes have been committed all over the place, after all, people are people. Nobody can bring those victims back, regardless of their nationality, creed, ethnicity. Let them rest in peace. As for the living, this nightmare was necessary for us to have a clean slate and a fresh start. We should strive to live together in peace and respect, and never let something like the hell of the entire 20th century in these regions happen again. We owe it to the ones in graves.

  6. Thank you for this, incl. the course-relevant perspective. No, your stories aren’t boring! I must confess I can’t read Dan Brown because of the inaccuracies and vanities.

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