"A hero, not a criminal" - Wikimedia/tomeks1. Some rights reserved
In August 1995, the Croatian army launched an offensive to reclaim parts of the country that were in Serb control. Codenamed ‘Storm’ or ‘Oluja’, the operation was a success and was praised for the sheer speed with which it attained its objective. The fifth of August is now marked as the Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day in Croatia, or the ‘Day of the Defenders’.
Yet not everything that occurred during Oluja was a cause for celebration. 300 to 600 Serb civilians lost their lives and thousands more were displaced. To complicate things further, the man in the centre of this rather complex and often confusing trial is General Ante Gotovina, the highest profile Croatian on trial for war crimes, who is regarded as a national hero back home.
The role of ‘Operation Storm’ in bringing an end to the Yugoslav conflict cannot be disputed. The operation, which was the largest European land offensive since the Second World War, forced Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table at Dayton. Yet nearly two decades later prosecutors at the International Crime Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are arguing that there was much more to Storm than what appeared from the outset.
The trial prosecutors argue that Gotovina was part of a ‘joint criminal enterprise’, led by then-President Franjo Tudjman, that sought to expel all ethnic Serbs from the region. The basis for such a theory is a meeting Tudjman held with his top military officials in July, 1995 in the Brijuni islands. The ICTY also wanted him to be held responsible for the casualties and damage that occurred during the offensive. In April 2011, the court found Gen. Gotovina guilty of ‘five counts of crimes against humanity’ and ‘four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war’ and sentenced him to 24 years. He has appealed his sentence and the final judgment is expected later this year.
For Croatians, this was a sentence levied against their nation and identity, with the then-Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor calling the judgment ‘unacceptable’. The trial chamber's comments on Tudjman, who is still revered in Croatia, caused widespread outrage.
This is partly explained by the fact that Ante Gotovina is no ordinary figure in Croatia. In a recent poll conducted by a mainstream newspaper on who the man behind a free and independent Croatia was, he came second, only behind Franjo Tudjman. He has been the subject of books, songs and movies, most notably in musician-turned parliamentarian Miroslav Skoro’s ‘Sude Mi’ or ‘They’re judging me’, two songs that became a national anthem of sorts. His picture adorns walls in small cafes and billboards in town centres.
The conviction however has also failed to satisfy the wider majority of international observers, not surprisingly since it deals with complex and controversial concepts such as a ‘joint criminal enterprise’ with a deceased supposed leader and ‘command responsibility’. Furthermore, 'Storm' was not an independent Croatian operation : in fact, it had US and NATO support. Soon after Gotovina's conviction, twelve prominent western military figures submitted a statement to the trial proceedings, claiming that the standards by which Gotovina was convicted were unfair, and that such a precedent would be dangerous for future military operations. In many ways, the outcome of the Gotovina trial may become an embryonic regulation as to what a military commander should and should not do while leading an operation.
The Yugoslav civil war was one of the most complex wars in recent times, with instances where supposed allies turned on each other. The international community too came under scathing criticisms for its actions or, even more often, for its inaction during the war, with the name ‘Srebenica’ coming hauntingly to mind. Nearly two decades later, the tribunal and much of the world are still trying to understand what exactly happened in what certainly was a dark period in the history of the western Balkans.
With the recent capture of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic, the ongoing trial of Radovan Karadzic and the Gotovina appeal, the ICTY is going through its most important phase. One can only hope that the tribunal’s findings will help bring some sort of closure to the thousands of families who lost their loved ones as Yugoslavia tore itself apart.