Two more days in the "ethnically cleansed" Krajina, this time heading south with my friend Konstanty Gebert, a Polish writer, and Ana Uzelac, his Serbo-Polish colleague from Belgrade. On the roads, there is no traffic except the Croat military police at the roadblocks, a few white-painted UN vehicles, and, incongruously, the occasional smart BMW or Mercedes with German number plates racing past. Presumably Croat Gastarbeiter revisiting family homes or just on safari.
For hour after hour, we drive through the most spectacularly beautiful countryside, along the wooded valleys of the Plitvicka National Park, across the karst uplands, and down to the fortress of Knin. For hour after hour we see nothing but devastated, burned, plundered houses. Roofs burned out; windows smashed; clothes, bedclothes, furniture, papers strewn across the floor. Everything of value removed. Orchards, vineyards, fields, all with their crops gone to waste. No cars left, no tractors, no farm equipment, no cattle, no dogs. Only a few cats survive.
And, for mile upon mile upon mile, we see no single human being. Nobody. Ana has brought from Belgrade the addresses of Serb families that fled, but their houses are very difficult to find, because the villages no longer have the landmarks the inhabitants remember. Could this have been a grocer's shop? Was that once a white wall? But there is no one to ask for directions.
Cleansing is in an awful way the right word for what has been done here. The Krajina, an area the size of several English counties, has literally been picked clean. This was not random looting. The plundering and burning has been done quite systematically—for the most part, it seems, by Croats in one uniform or another. The object, apart from booty, is simple: to ensure that the Serbs don't come back. Croatia is to be, so far as possible, Serb-free. Serbenrein.
According to the local UN office, some one hundred elderly Serbs who stayed in their homes have been murdered since Croat forces retook the area. At Gračac, we find fresh graves in the cemetery, numbered neatly on the identical wooden crosses. However, here, as elsewhere, the Orthodox church has been left standing, to show that the Croats are western, civilized people, unlike those barbaric Orthodox Serbs, who raze Catholic churches to the ground. But the vicarage has been torn apart. A children's Bible and a church calendar for 1996 lie among the litter on the floor.
At Kistanje, once a pretty, small town, we find three family photo albums laid out on stone tables in the marketplace. The wedding. A son's christening. The ceremony to celebrate his joining the Yugoslav army. As we turn the pages, a white armored personnel carrier of UNPROFOR, the so-called United Nations Protection Force, roars through the deserted town. Ludicrous protectors of nothing. The UN self-protection force.
In places like this, journalists say, "the story writes itself." Wherever we look, journalistic "color" and clichés offer themselves wantonly, like the whores in Amsterdam. Outside a plundered home, a doll is sprawled across the road, one foot torn off. In the ruins of the family home of Milorad Pupovac, leader of a small would-be liberal Serb party in Croatia, I find a book of children's verse, Robber Katja and Princess Nadja, published in Sarajevo in 1989. Ana can recite some of the verses from memory. The last poem is entitled "How Our Yugoslavia Grows." In the rubble of another house I see what looks like a white scroll. Unrolling it, I discover a black-and-white photograph of Tito—the kind that once hung in every public place and in many private houses too. It has a bootmark pointing toward the face.
Knin was the capital of the self-styled Serb Republic of Krajina. Now "liberated," its imposing hilltop fortress, with the checkerboard flag flying from the top, forms the background to the main election poster for President Tudjman's nationalist HDZ movement. In the foreground you see Tudjman himself, waving both fists above his head like a victorious football manager. Before the war, some 37,000 people lived in Knin; now even the local government claims only 2,000. Croat soldiers and military police, baseball caps reversed, speed along the deserted streets in their stolen—sorry, "liberated"—cars: a smart Mercedes, a Renault, a Mitsubishi Jeep with the name of the German dealer still advertised on the back. We climb to the top of the fortress and discover the largest flag I have ever seen in my life. It must be at least thirty feet long. Young girls in black jeans and T-shirts are photographing each other literally wrapped in the flag. The cliché made flesh.
As the sun sets over the mountains like a holiday advertisement, we drive down to the Adriatic, across the invisible line to the part of Croatia the Serbs never occupied, and suddenly there is ordinary life: houses with roofs, electric light, curtains, cars, a young couple canoodling on a scooter. In Šibenik, one of the beautiful resort towns on the Dalmatian coast, we gape at the cheerful, well-dressed crowds, the nice hotels and the Café Europa.
Ah, Europe—but we've been there all the time.
07 February 2008
Croatia, 1995: In Cleansed Krajina
From History of the Present: Essays, Sketches, and Dispatches from Europe in the 1990s, by Timothy Garton Ash (Vintage, 1999), pp. 167-169: