7 April 2005, Volume
WAR CRIMINALS OR NATIONAL HEROES?
A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg.
How much do the media and public in Croatia discuss the crimes committed against the Serbs?
Not enough, as far as I am concerned. Whenever the Hague indictments are mentioned, people are mostly interested in to what extent they serve as a condemnation of [Croatia's 1991-95] Liberation War and blur the distinctions between the victims and aggressors. This is so even though the indictments are not about politics but about specific crimes committed by the Croatian Army units or other forces embedded with the Croatian Army. Those things are misleadingly presented as attacks on Croatia and Croatian interests.
And what about the roles of the respective churches towards indictees? Some people believe that [wartime Bosnian Serb leader] Karadzic is hiding in monasteries in Montenegro, while Gotovina is allegedly in a monastery in western Herzegovina.
As far as the Serbian Orthodox Church and its dignitaries are concerned, I think that their behavior and activities make them into protectors of those indicted for war crimes. Very often they are treated as Serbian heroes. Let me mention General Lazarevic one more time. He made his career under the communist regime, when the church was banned from the army and persecuted. And now, that communist army officer was received by the patriarch before leaving for The Hague and vowed to keep on fighting to defend Kosovo.
The Serbian Orthodox Church played a negative role in the 1991-99 conflicts, although it had a golden opportunity to protect the endangered and the weak. Instead, some Orthodox priests saw off paramilitaries and volunteers to the front line with speeches aimed at encouraging their fighting spirit. Instead of preaching solidarity with the weak or solidarity with those threatened, the church continues to remind people about past genocide against the Serbs and thus helps keep up the cycle of violence. Even today, instead of promoting reconciliation, priests see off indictees and thereby give credence to the belief that crimes committed against others were acts in defense of the Serbian people.
Mr. Pusic, how does the Catholic Church treat its believers who committed war crimes against members of other ethnic groups?
Unfortunately, the Catholic Church shares the widely accepted views about such things. When we talk about some concrete cases, it is always said that crimes were committed against Croats because they were Croats, but crimes against non-Croats are rarely mentioned. Of course, there are individual priests who take a different view, but unfortunately, they do not set the tone.
I do not believe that the Catholic Church incited violence, but it did remain silent about the violence and failed to defend those whose lives were in danger. Instead, the church established ties to those in power, even if it did not become part of the power structure itself. After long decades in which the Catholic Church and its priests were essentially second-class citizens, they were suddenly brought to the forefront by political changes, and the fathers simply could not resist the temptation [to make up for lost time].
Criminals sometimes look for an ideology to justify their behavior.... In Croatia, most of those who committed such crimes were apologists of the [World War II] Ustasha regime. This is why in so many places in Croatia, from Zagreb to the smallest villages, you can see graffiti representing a stylized letter U [for Ustashe] together with a crucifix. It is very interesting that the Catholic Church has never protested against this....
Have the criminals in Serbia also sought ideological justification?
Once again, all people talk about is that others committed crimes against Serbs, and that what took place during World War II was simply repeated in the 1991-99 wars. When you watch the news programs of Radio-Television Serbia from 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994, you notice the very same message being repeated over and over again. People were encouraged to stand up and defend the Serbs, who were allegedly threatened by Ustashe, then Balijas, and finally the Albanian terrorists. Even today, those accused of war crimes are glorified, while their victims are denied the right to be considered victims.
For example, in the case of the Ovcara [killings after the fall of Vukovar in November 1991], one can often hear people say that many of those executed there were actually suspected themselves of having carried out horrible crimes against local Serbs, including killing children. This is essentially an attempt to justify the executions of people taken from the hospital by classifying those victims as war criminals [see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November 2004].