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.