New PhD student Sven Milekić begins work on Croatian war

This blog has been written by Sven Milekić, a recipient of funding from the Irish Research Council , who will be working with Dr. John Paul Newman 

As a recipient of the Iris Research Council’s full scholarship for postgraduate research, I recently started my PhD at Maynooth’s History department, under the supervision of Dr. John Paul Newman. Coming from the Croatian capital of Zagreb, as a topic of my doctoral research I’ve chosen a topic highly entangled with contemporary Croatia. The wider area of my research is the 1991-95 war in Croatia, officially and commonly known within the country as the Homeland War – a loaded term, according to some academics.

The majority of Croatia’s public and the whole political establishment see the Homeland War as the fundamental event in the country’s history. While legally one of Yugoslav’s successor states – as noted in the Constitution – Croatia has built its identity as opposed to the Yugoslav one, as “a nation forged in war”, as British writer Marcus Tanner noted in his book in 1997. Thus, it can be asserted, that the War functions as a state-funding myth.

Kinght Rafael Boban HOS unit lined up. Photo BIRN Sven Milekic 660
Veterans of the Croatian 1990s paramilitary unit within Croatian Defence Forces (integrated into the Croatian Army in 1992), named after Croatian WWII fascist Ustaša commander Rafael Boban. The association uses the Ustaša chant ‘Za dom spremni’ (‘Ready for the Home(land)’) and celebrates the day of the unit on April 10th, when the Ustaša state was declared in 1941. Taken in Split on April 10th 2018.

The narrative of the Homeland War is widely accepted among the general population, politicians, media, and, to some extent, domestic scholars. This dominant narrative was made official through a series of state-published documents, most notably the Parliament’s Declaration on the Homeland War from 2000. This Declaration most precisely outlines the dominant narrative of the war: Croatia fought a defensive and liberating war, within its internationally recognised borders, against “Greater-Serbian aggression”. Thus it rejects that Croatia had any offensive role in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995.

Additionally, although it mentions “an armed rebellion” of Croatian Serbs, it avoids mentioning that the war had components of a civil war as well. Some historians and legal experts argue that the War had some components of a civil war for two reasons: firstly, because it started while Croatia was still officially a part of Yugoslavia and, secondly because throughout the whole conflict Croatian Serbs fought state forces within state borders. Even more so, in war crime trials, Croatian courts treat the war as non-international before 8th of October 1991, nowadays celebrated as the Independence Day. Despite it all, the topic of the civil war is a taboo in the mainstream, often used for discrediting individuals for political or any other purposes.

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‘Storm 95’ memorial dedicated to the Croatian victory in 1995 military operation ‘Storm’, located in Knin, the capital of the rebelled Serb statetet Republic of Serbian Krajina. The operation ended with war crimes committed against Serb civilians, along with massive destruction and arson of their property. Photo taken on August 5th 2015, the 20th anniversary of the operation.

Another problematic element of the dominant narrative and the Declaration is its rejection of Croatia’s role in the Bosnian war. It was passed as a response to a verdict against Bosnian Croat general Tihomir Blaškić before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which stipulated that the Bosnian war had a character of an international war, with Croatia attempting to create a Croat entity that would enter state borders eventually. Although ICTY tries individuals rather than states, which gives only limited possibilities to victims of its wartime activities, the state found it necessary to reject such a narrative. Even though multiple ICTY’s verdicts established Croatia’s role in the Bosnian War, this remains another taboo topic in domestic politics, media and academia.

Within this broader topic, I wish to shed light on war veterans’ associations, an especially powerful social and political player, amplifying the dominant narrative of the war throughout the years. The fact that veterans are officially and widely referred to as defenders – another relatively loaded term – speaks just how important their position is. Although numerous, veterans’ associations are mostly consistent in promoting the mentioned narrative in the public sphere. As active participants of the war, their wartime experience works as their credentials in designing different aspects of how the dominant narrative produces real-life results. For example, veterans’ associations were consulted in preparing the educational reform, which would include modification of the history curriculum. It is hard to research veterans in Croatia per se, as they number around 500,000 persons, according to a register that was available to the public until a few years ago, when it was pulled down by the new centre-right government. Although this number is inflated – according to many experts, even some veterans – it shows how massive this group is. Additionally, many veterans do not publically express their identity nor are they active in the veterans’ community.

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Young men hold the Croatian flag with the coat of arms of a nationwide association of war veterans. Taken in Vukovar on November 18th 2015 

This is why I will focus on veterans’ associations as they are the vehicle through which persons express their views as veterans. I will research activities of these associations by analysing media reports and their press releases, public initiatives they launched, publications they produced, their organisational documents, the design of associations’ websites, law amendment initiatives and memorials.

Why have I chosen this topic? Because, the Homeland War is very much present as a topic in contemporary Croatia, constantly revived in everyday politics. The dominant narrative became even more petrified through years and every statement countering the narrative results in smear campaigns. In the context of post-conflict resolution, this strict narrative does not allow reconciliation between Croats and Serbs within the country, relations between Croats and other ethnic groups in Bosnia, as well as relations between Croatia and Bosnia Serbia.

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A sign dedicated to the 1990s Bosnian Croat political and military officials put on trial for war crimes before the ICTY. They were found guilty for war crimes in November 2017. Taken in Vukovar on November 18th 2015.

Why have I chosen Maynooth University? The first reason is my supervisor, Dr. Newman, who is a part of the History department. Dr. Newman and I were in contact for months before applying for the IRC grant, working on the project, altering and developing it. With his knowledge on the topic of war veterans from Balkans, Prof Newman is a perfect supervisor, who understands the local political and social context, while knowing the local language.

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Family members of killed and missing Croatian soldiers who took part in the defence of Vukovar. Taken in Vukovar on November 18th 2015.

Another reason why I have chosen Maynooth is cutting-edge research conducted within its History department and Centre for European and Eurasian Studies. Finally, I have opted for doing my PhD research on this University because I wish to research the issue outside Croatia, where I would face different pressures and obstacles in my work.

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