Croatia: where guns and roses don’t mix, and the worm of a hateful war gnaws at an old and militantl

From: National Catholic Reporter  |  Date: 10/8/1993  |  Author: McCarthy, Tim

And the worm of a hateful war gnaws at an old and militantly Catholic core

ZAGREB, Croatia — In front of the Zagreb railroad station is an imposing equestrian statute of Tomislav, the 10th century warrior king who wrested the Croats free from Byzantine rule. The bronze sculpture is powerful, invincible, and the king is wielding a cross. It could as well symbolize the militant Catholicism that dominates Croatia today.


When I first visited Zagreb 25 years ago, it was like traveling back through time to Central Europe before World War II. Now there are many more armed men on the streets, but not much else has changed, despite the modern shopping complex under construction between the railroad station and the grandiose Hotel Esplanade.

Streetcars are still the primary form of public transportation. There are no buses downtown. Whole pigs and lambs still hang in the clamoring marketplace at the city's heart. Almost any cobbled street at night could have been a set in an old espionage movie in black and white.

Long an important trade and cultural center, Zagreb now has about 1 million inhabitants (not counting the many war refugees from other parts of Croatia) and next year celebrates its 900th anniversary. It is also the seat of Croatian Catholicism. The Gothic cathedral, probably the primary symbol of the city and the largest Catholic church in the Balkans, oversees everything from its hill in the upper town.

Here is history galore, but there is also a certain local mindset in which it sometimes seems that history hardly moves. This is especially true in the church.

Some of this was running through my mind as I trudged under my 50-pound pack up Strossmayer Street to the century-old Palace Hotel. A taxi driver at the station had recommended it. Across the street was a spacious park, lined with giant plane and chestnut trees.

The street was named, I took it, after Josip Strossmayer, a 19th century Croat bishop who worked to reunite the Roman and Orthodox churches. Strossmayer was a remarkable man, a Croat patriot who wanted total equality for Serbs, a religious healer and political savant, wine lover, horse breeder and renowed raconteur. He fearlessly confronted both the Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph and the Vatican and founded the University of Zagreb along the way.

Most of the Slavs that Ss. Cyril and Methodius converted to Christianity ended up in the Orthodox camp after the 1054 schism. In the 19th century, the Vatican still looked on them as apostates. Strossmayer helped resurrect Cyril and Methodius in the Roman church as a symbol of unity among Christians East and West and as a result the Vatican hated his guts.

What a godsend such a religious leader would be in the Balkans today. Unfortunately, the Croatian Catholic mentality is much closer to that of Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac, the archbishop of Zagreb during World War II, than to that of Strossmayer.

Stepinac was an austere, rigidly pious prelate and, more than 30 years after his death, he remains a figure of great controversy here. No one questions his courage, but whether he was a saint or a murderous bigot depends upon whom you talk to.

It was on his watch that right-wing zealots, including a good many Franciscan priests, butchered up to 400,000 Orthodox Serbs in the Nazi puppet state of Croatia. Other Serbs were forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism. Many commentators think that Stepinac was, at the very least, late to condemn that early version of ethinic cleansing.

He was a fierce Croat nationalist, who welcomed the Nazis to Zagreb because their coming meant an independent Croatia. Tito made him the star of a classic communist show trial in 1946 and dumped him into prison. The Vatican, especially under its current Slavic pope, has all but canonized him.

Whatever the truth about Stepinac, the murder of so many Serbs in his see has everything to do with the hideous brutality of the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina today. (Estimates of the number of Serb deaths here during World War II vary from 75,000 to 400,000, depending upon which side is estimating. Some historians think 300,000 is close to the mark.)

Tito tried to defuse that latent hatred by planting Serbs in Croat regions and Croats in Serb regions, along with a mix of Muslims. But, without a totalitarian state to keep the lid on, political and religious demagoguery took root and Tito's demographic tinkering is fueling the fire of a terrible war.

In the tradition of Stepinac, the Catholic church here is fiercely (and sometimes blindly) nationalist. A Croatian priest I met near the central Bosnian town of Prozor embodied that mindset as well as anyone. He was a refugee from the nearby town of Gornji Vakuf, where especially intense Croat-Muslim combat that week had already killed at least 60 of his parishioners.

His name was Vinco Tomas, a small, gentle man, about 40 years old. Sandals, a wooden cross and a black leather bag over his shoulder gave him the look of a wandering friar. He fingered a rosary while he talked.

Tomas said he had been friends with many Muslims before the war, but had not been in touch with any of them for seven months. He said Croats now had a deep-seated fear of Muslim fundamentalism and the Muslim jihad (holy war). While characterizing Muslims as the "biggest victims," he refused to accept any Croatian responsibility for that suffering, offered no explanation for the dozens of Muslim homes and businesses selectively destroyed in the Croat town of Prozor where he was staying.

For Tomas, Bosnian Croats were the innocent victims of Serb and Muslim aggression. His political take on the Muslims was identical to Croat (and, ironically, Serb) government propaganda hawking the horrors of a holy war waged by fundamentalists intent on killing or converting infidels and imprisoning Croat women behind the veil. And that is what the priest said he preaches.

There is no evidence that Bosnian Muslims have any fundamentalist bent (some sources indicate that only an estimated 17 percent of them even practiced the faith before the war). The Western arms boycott has forced them to appeal for help from Islamic states, including Iran, but during a month of traveling much of what used to be Yugoslavia I did not see a single veild Muslim.

A.U.N. volunteer in Creotia told me the inmates of a Muslim refugee camp where he worked specifically asked to be fed pork. And I saw firsthand that many Muslims share the typical South Slav liking for the local plum brandy. No, the Croat Catholics have elevated wartime propaganda to something close to religious dogma.

Giving peace what chance?

In Zagreb's big Jelacica Square (recently renamed for the 19th century Croat military leader, Ban Jelacic), a communal gathering place where dozens of locals loll or stroll about on a summer evening, I was amazed to hear myself hailed by name. It was Gary Shapiro, a Vermonter who had been with the ill-fated Mir Sada peace convoy in Bosnia (NCR, Aug. 27). He told me where to find the local peace group I was looking for.

(I'd gone to the square in search of a restaurant I remembered from my earlier visit here, a vast place with many rooms and levels, wandering violin players and lambs roasting on a spit. It had been reduced to a small, overpriced cafe. The rest had been converted to a casino, an accouterment of capitalism that caught on quickly in what used to be the communist bloc.)

The next day I sought out the antiwar group, known by the Croatian acronym ARK, on a quiet street up past the city market. ARK works out of a converted second-floor apartment, the rooms a jumble of battered office furniture, papers, telephones and computers. (E-mail networking is now vital to the international peace movement, an integral part of the information revolution, moving like an underground river beneath the dry beds of the mainstream media.)

Many of the volunteers are foreigners I talked with a young British Quaker named Alex Melbourne. He said ARK was founded in 1991 and that there was no peace movement in Croatia before then. Now there are about 20 peace organizations. They monitor the media, still government-controlled here, and work to protect human rights.

Currently, ARK is defending Serbs being evicted from their homes to make way for wounded Croat soldiers, a practice Melbourne described as "totally illegal." Many Serbs are also being sacked from their jobs, he said.

(Similarly, when Albanian Muslim workers in Kosovo walked out in a protest strike after the Serb government rescinded the region's autonomy in 1989, 105,000 state employees were sacked and replaced by Serbs, eventually making life so miserable for the Muslims that many of them were forced to emigrate. This is a relatively benign form of ethnic cleansing.)

ARK is ecumenical, Melbourne said, but religion plays little part in it. People of many political persuasions are involved, from fervid nationalists to those nostalgic for the old Yugoslavia. Until recently, the Franjo Tudjman regime has ignored them because the group was so small, but now the government press has begun to critize their activities and they expect increased harassment.

Melbourne said a majority of Croatians disapprove of the peace groups and even look on them as traitors for trying to help Serbs as well as Croats. Despite that, similar groups have sprung up in every part of the former Yugoslavia, although some do not appear to be very active. Several I tried to contact by telephone never answered.

That evening, and every evening I was in Zagreb, about 40 middle-aged demonstrators marched around the park across from the Palace Hotel. They carried signs and blared slogans over a bullhorn. Night after night their number hardly varied and no one appeared to pay them much mind. Even the soldiers policing them looked bored.

One of the demonstrators, Vedrana Bobinac, said they represented the Croatian Party of Rights, the "only true opponents" of the Tudjman government, which she described as "not democratic." What did they stand for besides a real democracy and a free press? Were they concerned, for example, about the rights of Serbs in Croatia?

"We want the Serbs to have equal rights," she said, "but only as Croatians" (read, "as Roman Catholics").

Croatia is indeed a one-party state, much closer in nature to the authoritative, demagogic regime of Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic than to any Western democracy. But there was a forlorn, even pathetic air about the demonstrators in the park. With such opponents, Tudjman, for all his political bumbling, has every right to feel secure.

Earlier in the day, stopping to buy some of the roasted corn they sell in the street here, I met a Bosnian refugee from Mostar, a Croat. Her name was Danijela, 24 years old, a strapping 6-footer who said she was good enough at handball to play it professionally if she could ever make a living at it. She asked me to come and see her at the nightclub where she was tending bar.

After dinner that evening, I dropped by there. A metal detector scanned me for weapons at the door. Apart from a table of Russian prostitutes, there were no other customers.

"We are supposed to have a floor show," Danijela said, "but they are always coming from Rijeka and never get here. Every day we wait. Who knows what happened to them."

Where did she learn English?

"Some in school, but mostly from movies and music." I had heard that before. Pop music, not movies, TV, diplomacy or economic might, was the deepest American influence here, especially among the young. A U.N. volunteer told me Serbs are such devoted fans that pop stars would make the best peace envoys. "Send them into Serb territory," he said, "and the war would stop."

Danijela said she did not want me to use her last name because her parents are still in Mostar, Bosnia's second city, where the fighting was again heavy. She is living in Zagreb with her sister and wants to go to Germany or Czechoslovakia, preferably Germany because that is where the money is.

Before the war, she had many Serb and Muslim friends. She doesn't know what happened to any of them and she hasn't a clue about the reasons for the war. Nor, at bottom, did she seem to care. It was as if someone had planted a fearsome foreign object in the path of her life –the war — and her only goal was to get around it.

"I always smile," she said. "It works."

She said she would like to go home to Mostar someday, but does not think she will be able to "for maybe 10 years."

What did being a Catholic mean to her?

"Nothing," she said. She does not go to church and most of the young people she knows do not go. "It means nothing. Just standing up and sitting down." But sometimes she goes into a church alone to "just think."

On my way back to the hotel that night, a soldier leveled his Kalashnikov at my chest and demanded to see my papers. There I was, back on the movie set. Zagreb had lost none of its Old World charm.

Guns and roses

ARK volunteers told me about a reconstruction project they were working with in a town called Pakrac, about 70 miles southeast of Zagreb. So one morning I rented a car and drove out there for a look.

Most of the trip was on the Zagreb-Belgrade expressway, once a humming trade route. But for mile after mile that day there was not another vehicle on the road. The effect was eerie. Tank barriers blocked the road at the Novska exit. From there it was another 20 miles up through wooded hills to Pakrac.

This was U.N.-controlled territory and checkpoints were frequent. Jordanian soldiers manned most of them. Each time, they searched the car for weapons. There are about 14,000 U.N. troops keeping a precarious peace here.

Fighting was heavy in the region during the first months of the war in 1991. In village after village there was hardly a building left standing. Croats destroyed many Serb houses after the fighting stopped.

Damage in the larger town of Pakrac was extensive as well. U.N. tanks and APCs were on almost constant patrol. There is still a stunned air about the place, an unnatural quiet in the streets. Children have only just begun to return to the town from refuges in other parts of the country. U.N. headquarters was by far the liveliest place.

This was the Croat side. On the Serb side, only a short walk across the noman's-land near U.N. headquarters, conditions were said to be worse — little water, no electricity. Croatian guards would not let me cross over. U.N. volunteers who cross over are looked upon as traitors.

ARK had given me some contacts. Several U.N. volunteers from various countries asked me to join them around a sidewalk table at the Scorpia Bar. Bullet holes cratered the front of the building. Nearly every wall left standing in the town was like that.

One of the volunteers was an Irish woman named Annette O'Gorman. She had recently come from Sarajevo, where she had established a U.N. High Commission on Refugees volunteer group of 35 women and one man. Describing herself as "a proud Irish Catholic," she said she was "set for income" and had wanted to work in the Third World.

She said her motivation for being in the war zone was to develop herself as a person, make herself "a much more powerful, assertive woman." They call her "the hugs lady" and she gives them aplenty.

The United Nations had wanted to repair both the Catholic and Orthodox churches here, she said, but got permission only for the Catholic. Both churches are on the Croat side of the front line. Serbs can look across no-man's-land and see their church a few hundred feet away, a crippled ghost of a place now, shelled by their own guns during the fighting.

Another volunteer was a 38-year-old longtime peace and environmental activist from the Netherlands, Wam Kat. Soft spoken, somewhat morose, he seemed shorn of all illusion after more than a year in the war.

There is a lot of hate here, he said, but it is not black and white, not a religious dilemma, but a deeply human one. "The situation is fragile," he said. "We are walking on eggshells 24 hours a day."

It was partly for that reason that he was clearly bitter about the Mir Sada peace convoy in Bosnia. "It was totally naive," he said.

Misguided idealism? he was asked.

"I am an idealist," he said. "Otherwise I wouldn't be here. And I am a pacifist. But rainbow flags do not protect you against shells and mortars. Roses and cannons don't mix."

What was the difference, then, between him and the Mir Sada pacifists?

"Fifteen months in the war zone," he said.

We walked over to a school that is just reopening. Kat, O'Gorman and two German volunteers are helping there. "Even when (what you do) is not much, it can help," Kat said.

Later, Kat showed me a badly damaged section of the Catholic church, picked up two spent assault rifle cartridges from the ground and handed them to me. "They are everywhere," he said. "Everybody has a gun."

Most of former Yugoslavia had long been a gun-happy culture, a place where a man was considered less than a man if he was not good with a rifle and pubs are decorated with different caliber cartridges. Guns are fired into the air at weddings. There were several weddings in Pakrac recently, both Serb and Croat, and Kat said the U.N. troops didn't know what was going on. The local police showed up and fired their own guns into the air.

We walked over to the front line to see the Orthodox church. I asked the Croat soldiers hunkered behind a sandbag emplacement if I could photograph the church. They said no. We kept talking to them, a long and tense negotiation. Finally they called their headquarters on a field telephone. They said I could photograph the church, but the Serb side could not be in the picture. I would have to walk down the road and shoot back this way.

"Everything here is careful," Kat said, "one little step at a time or you accomplish nothing. Peace convoys are not the dynamics here and therefore they are unacceptable."

The Yugoslav economy was based upon political stability between the East-West power blocs, Kat said, and when the Berlin Wall came down, the economy fell apart. "Give these people jobs and they will not fight. Belgians would be fighting each other if they didn't have jobs. It could happen anywhere."

"I don't want to accept what is happening here," Kat said, "but I want to understand it."

That is a tall order.

During lunch at a cafe in the Zagreb marketplace the next day, a man sitting alone was having a political argument with the air. He was in his 50s, big, beefy, black-jowled. His camouflage combat pants and boots indicated that he might have been at least an ex-soldier. He growled and bellowed, waved his arms and whacked the table. A group of young soldiers, all heavily armed, watched him rave, their smiles condescending.

As Wam Kat said, "Discussion doesn't even matter anymore."

The cathedral bells rang out, as they did periodically throughout the day, just as they had 25 years ago, filling the downtown with their call. But no one seemed to hear. The lonely man raved on. The soldiers smiled.

In her marvelous book about Yugoslavia circa 1937, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West describes a visit to the Zagreb cathedral on Holy Saturday. The crucifix had been removed from behind the altar and laid on the floor to symbolize the dead Christ. Following a long tradition, two armed soldiers were guarding it. Their lips were drawn, faces green as if from seasickness with the intensity of their emotion. They were guarding the dead Christ!

But you would be hard-put to find that passionate intensity in the church here today. Not that it has disappeared from the people. After smothering under the communist pall for almost 50 years, flashes of it are again blazing free, usually in unspeakable acts of wartime brutality. But it will be a long time, if ever, before that intensity finds its way back into religion.

At 5 the next morning, when I trudged back to the railroad station to catch a train to Italy, past the glooming statue of King Tomislav, the station was pitch-dark. Not a bulb burned in any of the rooms or hallways. Even the big mechanical timetable could not be read. Travelers groped their way through the black.

Given the somberness of this war, the mass craziness and mutilated hope, the shrouded future, it seemed a fitting way to end.

COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter

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