The Untold Story

From 1992 to 1995, I made a total of six trips into Croatia and Bosnia to report on the experiences of Canada’s peacekeepers. What became readily apparent was that nightly newscasts back home did not depict the same war-torn Yugoslavia being patrolled by our soldiers.
For instance, on September 9, 1993, the Croatian forces unleashed a massive bombardment on a Serbian-held enclave known as the Medak Pocked. This region, designated United Nations Protected Area, was occupied by a Canadian infantry battalion. Following the artillery fire, the Croats launched a pincer-like attack that effectively eliminated the Serbian defenders from the ridgelines. Along the valley floor, Croat tank columns quickly captured four Serb-held villages. Over the next three days, in an effort to fulfil their “protection” mandate, Canadian soldiers from the Second Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2PPCLI) engaged the Croatian special forces units in a number of firefights. Official reports later stated that some 35 Croats were killed during the skirmishes, while four Canadians were wounded by artillery fire. Through this stoic display of determined resistance, the commander of 2PPCLI, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Calvin, eventually convinced the Croatian commander to withdraw his forces. Before pulling out, the Croats massacred all of the remaining Serb inhabitants. Ordered not to interfere by U.N. Headquarters in Zagreb, the Canadians were forced to stand by as unwilling, impotent witnesses to the carnage. The only recourse possible for 2PPCLI was to catalogue the evidence they had collected, and to seek official U.N. indictments against the Croat commanders as war criminals. Despite the overwhelming evidence, the Croatian government issued a brief, blanket denial, and the whole issue was quickly dropped. The general who had planned and executed the Croatian attack was, in fact, an Albanian Kosovar named Agim Ceku.
The 1993 action at the Medak Pocket garnered only fleeting coverage on CNN and incredibly, given the magnitude of our soldiers’ actions, went completely unpublicized by the Canadian defence department. In fact, the Canadian public did not even learn of the engagement until three years later, when Ottowa Citizen reporter David Pugliese broke the story on October 7, 1996. (It wasn’t until May 1998 that Lieutenant Colonel Jim Calvin finally briefed Parliament – complete with photographic evidence of the massacre.)
For the soldiers who took part in the harrowing Medak operation – Canada’s largest ground battle since the Korean war – the lack of public recognition was disturbing. Warrant Officer Matt Stopford was awarded a Mention in Despatches for his courage under fire and for maintaining his position during the first days of the Croatian bombardment. His forward observation post was just metres from the Croat front lines. Thus, during the last night before the withdrawal, Stopford had been an eyewitness to drunken Croat special forces troops – one of whom was parading around with bloodied panties on his head – raping, looting and killing Serbs with impunity. The restrictive U.N. Rules of Engagement prevented Stopford from doing anything but reporting the atrocities to a higher headquarters.
Upon returning to Canada, Stopford was amazed at the ignorance of the average citizen. “People would hear that you’d just got back from Yugo, and they’d say ‘aren’t those Serbs bastards?’ as if they knew all about the Balkans,” said Stopford. “When you’d start to explain to them how we watched the Serbs get butchered by the Croats, you could see their eyes glaze over. Nobody really wanted to give that much thought to the complexity of the situation in Yugoslavia,” Stopford continued. “For us, it was like coming home from the Second World War and telling people we’d fought for the Germans. Rather than try to explain things, it was easier just to let it go.”
On August 3, 1995, in the same sector that Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Calvin’s 2PPCLI had resisted the Medak Pocket incursion, the Croats launched Operation Storm. This time, the Canadian peacekeepers did not resist. Rather than endanger their own lives, the men of he Royal 22nd Regiment (Vandoos) surrendered their weapons and observation posts to the advancing Croats. Once again, under the direction of General Agim Ceku, the Croatian Army unleashed a devastating artillery bombardment. This time, however, it was German mercenaries in Croatian uniform who spearheaded the attack, and NATO fighter jets that provided them with tactical airstrikes.
The Serb defenders of this region (known as the Krajina) didn’t have a chance – tactically or strategically. The moment the artillery bombardment began, Serb civilians – aware of the massacre conducted by Ceku’s troops in the Medak – began to flee into Bosnia en masse. Their soldiers were right behind them.
Nearly 250,000 Serbs were thus ‘ethnically cleansed’ from the Krajina in advance of the Croat onslaught. Those who chose to remain – or were too tardy in their flight – paid the price. As Ceku’s men swept through the Krajina, all evidence of Serb habitation was systematically destroyed. Civilians were executed; livestock and pets slaughtered; houses burned; and wells poisoned. When thousands of fleeing Serbs sought refuge in the Krajina capital of Knin, General Ceku’s artillery gunners deliberately shelled the city. According to U.N. reports, over 500 civilians were killed or wounded in the bombardment – at a time when Knin was devoid of military targets. In other words, the shelling was an intentional act of terror against unarmed civilians, a war crime.
Two senior Canadian officials serving with the U.N. were present in Knin at the time of the attack, Major Allain Forand and Colonel Andrew Leslie. Both men submitted detailed complaints to the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal in an effort to indict not only the commanders (including Ceku, who was responsible for the artillery), but also Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. General Forand and Colonel Leslie alleged that only Tudjman himself could have authorized the massive Krajina cleansing and terror bombardments.
Even though Canadian peacekeepers had been captured and detained during the attack, there was almost no domestic media coverage of the forced displacement of 250,000 Serbs, not to mention the accompanying slaughter. For the Canadian military, the shameful surrender by the Vandoos was an embarrassment that senior commanders understandably did not wish to have publicized.
Since he U.S. had covertly aided the Croats in Operation Storm (though the provision of arms, training, advisors, satellite intelligence and airpower), the massive Serbian tragedy went virtually unreported in North America.
Scott Taylor
INAT: Images of Serbia and the Kosovo Conflict (2000)

The Western powers and the collapse of Yugoslavia

The forces eager to see the break-up of Yugoslavia through independence for Slovenia and Croatia were the Vatican, Austria, Hungary, Germany and, more ambivalently, Italy. Since the mid-1980s, the Vatican and Austria had started an active campaign in East Central and Eastern Europe to rebuild their influence there and by 1989-90 the Vatican was openly championing independence for Slovenia and Croatia. By 1990 Austria’s government was equally open. In the words of a study by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Austria had “a remarkably open and sometimes brazen policy aimed at helping Slovenia and Croatia in their efforts to leave the [Yugoslav] Federation.”  The Austrian media denounced what they called ‘Panzer Communism’ in Yugoslavia and ‘primitive Serbs’ while the Austrian government went so far as to include the Slovenian Minister for External Affairs, Dmitri Rupel, in Austria’s own delegation to a CSCE meeting in Berlin. Although Austria presented its drive for Slovenian and Croatian independence in terms of ‘democracy’ and the ‘democratic rights’ of the Slovenians and Croatians, such concerns were hardly uppermost in the Austrian state, given the fact that for decades Austria had, according to Zemetica, “been striving to assimilate the Slovene minority in the Klagenfurt Basin and the Croats in Burgenland” and “had been flagrantly and consistently brushing aside its obligations towards minorities under the 1955 State Treaty.”

The real goal of Austrian policy was to expand Austria’s regional influence since it “saw the Yugoslav crisis as an auspicious moment for self-assertion” In the summer of 1991 the EC was finally prompted to warn Austria that if it continued its energetic efforts to break up Yugoslavia it would be excluded from eventual EC membership but even that threat did not stop Austrian efforts.

The Hungarian government of Jozef Antall, elected in the Spring of 1990, adopted a policy very much in line with that of Austria, but with additional Hungarian goals vis a vis Serbia’s Voivodina Province. As Zametica explains, the Hungarian government, during the Yugoslav crisis, consistently favoured and covertly aided the secessionist struggle of Slovenia and, particularly, Croatia. The Kalashnikov affair of early 1991 revealed that wide sections of Hungary’s officialdom were implicated in the illegal and large scale supply of weapons to Croatia.

Hungary was secretly supplying automatic assault rifles to Croatia in late 1990. And in July 1991, at the very height of the crisis between Serbia and Croatia, the Hungarian  Prime Minister declared that the international treaties designating Hungary’s southern borders with Serbia and in particular with Voivodina were treaties made only with Yugoslavia. This, he said, was an ‘historical fact’ which ‘must be kept in view’. And, referring to the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Antal spelt out just why Hungary was so vigorously supporting Croatia’s secession: “We gave Vojvodina to Yugoslavia. If there is no more Yugoslavia, then we should get it back.”

These manoeuvres by Austria and Hungary to break up Yugoslavia were, of course, then overshadowed by the German government’s drive to derecognise Yugoslavia through giving recognition to Slovenia and Croatia. The German government’s open championing of Yugoslavia’s break-up did not occur until the late Spring of 1991, but long before that both Slovenia and Croatia were getting encouragement from Bonn for their efforts. The German campaign has usually been explained by Kohl’s domestic electoral interests. But the weakness of this explanation lies in the fact that it was Foreign Minister Genscher – not a Christian Democrat – who seems to have been the driving force behind the German policy. And there was thus a focused and co-ordinated coalition involving Austria, Germany, Hungary and the Vatican all pushing for the same goal: Yugoslavia’s break up.

In 1990 the CIA was warning the Bush administration that Yugoslavia was heading for civil war within 18 months. The dilemma was well brought out by a journalist at a press conference given by Secretary of State Baker on 5 July 1990 in Washington. The journalist asked: “I noticed in the remarks that you made today that were distributed to us, you expressed some concerns about the situation in Yugoslavia. Now, how does conditionality apply to the kind of problem that you have described in Yugoslavia, which is less to do with the central government and more to do with the different republics. It is not clear whether Belgrade could deliver some of the things that you want. How will that be judged?”

Baker, normally laconic, replied with some feeling but more evasion: “The question you raised is a very, very good question. There will have to be some serious thought given to the degree to which you look at the republic level as opposed to looking at the central government level. And you are quite right. There are some things in some countries with respect to which the central government can deliver on; and in other countries that cannot be done.”

But the US government as a whole opted for the priority of the Shock Therapy programme over Yugoslav cohesion.  Thus was the internal dynamic towards the Yugoslav collapse into civil war decisively accelerated. The only European states which did have a strategic interest in the Yugoslav theatre tended to want to break it up.

It would be wrong, of course, to suggest that there were no other, specifically Yugoslav, structural flaws which helped to generate the collapse. Many would argue that the decentralised Market Socialism was a disastrous experiment for a state in Yugoslavia’s geopolitical situation. The 1974 Constitution, though better for the Kosovar Albanians, gave too much to the republics, crippling the institutional and material power of the Federal government. Tito’s authority substituted for this weakness until his death in 1980, after which the state and Communist Party became increasingly paralysed and thrown into crisis. But if the Western powers had been remotely interested in putting the interests of the Yugoslav people first, they had adequate levers to play a decisive role, alongside Yugoslavia’s federal government, in maintaining the country’s integrity. Instead, the Western powers most interested in Yugoslav developments actually assisted, politically and materially, in bringing about the collapse.

In 1991 the Western powers, led by Germany, gave their answer on the question of the Serb population in Croatia. They said Croatia should be entitled to independence on grounds of self-determination and within the boundaries of republican Croatia established within post-war Yugoslavia. Self-determination was established by the fact that a referendum of the Croatian nation had voted for independence. This was a formula for war between the Croatian nationalist government and Croatia’s Serb population because it violated the principles for handling the national question established in the post-war Yugoslav constitution: it denied the Serbs in Croatia their sovereign national rights.

Under that constitution the will of a republican majority could not override the equally valid will of a constituent nation. Thus the vote of the Croatian majority for independence could not override the rights of the Serb population which had to be equally respected. The political leaders of the Serbian population in Croatia organised a referendum on whether to remain within  an independent Croatia and the result was an overwhelming rejection. According to the Yugoslav principles Croatian independence should have been dependent upon a prior resolution of that conflict of rights and democratic wills.

But the EC states during 1991 ignored this, rejecting the Yugoslav idea that the Serb nation had rights equal to the Croatian republican will. Instead the majority of EC states adopted the view that the Serb population of Croatia should accept their status as a national minority within an independent Croatia. This approach should, of course, have implied that CSCE principles for protecting minority rights must be guaranteed before Croatian independence was recognised. But the Croatian government rejected the granting of such CSCE rights.

And the German government decided to brush this CSCE principle aside and recognised Croatia without any prior commitment by the Croatian government to adequate minority rights for Croatia’s Serbian population. This German position thus involved a double betrayal of Croatia’s Serbs: a betrayal of the Yugoslav principles concerning their rights and a betrayal of the CSCE principles concerning their rights. It was bound to drive the Croatian Serb population towards war under the leadership of Serb nationalism. And it led the American mediator Cyrus Vance to call the resulting war ‘Genscher’s war’, referring to the German Foreign Minister. This may be an exaggeration: it was also Tudjman’s and Milosevic’s. But it was Genscher who made it clear to the Croatian Serbs that they had nobody to depend on for their rights but the force of their own arms and those of Serbia.

As to why the German government took this stand is an issue which remains obscure. The line of German diplomats that it was driven by domestic pressures is not convincing since the Auswärtiges Amt [foreign office] led the whole drive. As we shall see, there were other interpretations at the time. But equally important is the question as to why the other EC powers were prepared to accept the German line.

Peter Gowan
The Twisted Road to Kosovo (1999)