Last weekend Croatia celebrated the 22 anniversary of Operation Storm which took place during the first week of august 1995 and which liberated a large part of Croatian territory seized by units of then co-called ”SAO Krajina”.
That august 1995, along with Operation Storm on the other side of the border units of the Bosnian Army´s 5th Corps liberated Bihać and surrounding areas after three and a half years of siege and occupation. The following two months the Bosnian Army´s 5th Corps would go on an unstoppable offensive in towards south central Bosnia and Hercegovina and along link up with other units of Bosnian Army to liberate several towns and large swaths of land.
Croatia´s political leadership has in the last couple of days, more so then before pointed to the alleged Croatian role in liberating Bihać and thus supposedly avoiding a new Srebrenica. Certainly one of the main reasons for this is the fact that at the end of this year the ICTY´s appeal verdict against the Herceg-Bosna Six for their role in the Joint Criminal Enterprise in Hecegovina and central Bosnia is due. The verdict is almost certain to be identical to the first verdict.
The Croatian premier Andrej Plenković and Miroslav Tuđman (son of late Franjo) have given almost identical statements regarding Bihać: ”Operation Storm helped prevent a new Srebrenica in Bihać”.
It´s no wonder that the Croatian premier Plenković, who spent most of the war in the relative comfort and safety of European capitals and Brussels would say something like that. But, Miroslav Tuđman is familiar with this topic, and yet claims that it was the ”cries of the people of Bihać” that lead to the decision to ”help”. After three and a half years of bloody siege of the Bihać Krajina in which the surrounded Bosnian Army successfully defended itself and managed to mount offensives. Today they are forced to listen to sympathy and lessons from Croatia.
After constant battles in the spring and summer of 1994 the 5th Corps managed to push the Serb Army some 250 square kilometers to the east, and then proceeded to rout and capture almost all of Fikret Abdić´s units. After which the Serbs mounted two powerful counteroffensives; “Štit” and “Pauk”. (Shield and Spider) After bloody and vicious fighting those offensives failed to bring about any significant gains for the Serb Army. It´s was obvious that the Krajina Serbs commanded by Knin and Bosnian Serbs along with units from Serbia couldn´t bring about the fall of Bihać and that they were on the brink of defeat. Miroslav Tuđman knows that the Croatian Army´s and HVO´s offensive began after the Bosnian Army had cut down the Serb offensives on Bihać. Constant battles between the Bosnian Army´s 5th Corps and Bosnian Serb Army, Army of the Serbian Krajina (Croatian Serbs) and numerous units from Serbia with a body count numbering over nine thousand on both sides speaks volumes about who liberated Bihać and destroyed the units of Republika Srpska Krajina and Mladić´s Bosnian Serbs.
There are similarities in the way Bihać was treated by both Milošević and Tuđman (Franjo), along with the question how was it possible that Fikret Abdić could be a serf to both Milošević and Tuđman. And how his forces were always part of the units attacking Bihać and the 5th Corps? It could be said that Abdić was more of a Croatian player then a Serb one. The public in Bosnia and Hercegovina found out about that through transcripts of Tuđman´s meetings. During a meeting with general Janko Bobetko on 22nd of November 1993 Tuđman confirmed his relationship with Abdić : ”We have an agreement with Abdić that if or rather when the split happens “Western Bosnia” becomes an integral part of Croatia.”
The size and scope of the Serbo-Croat cooperation against the people of Bihać Krajina is confirmed by the signatures on the joint statement by Fikret Abdić and Mate Boban in the presence of Franjo Tuđman and the ”Declaration” with Abdić and Karadžić in the presence of Milošević the following day, on October 22nd 1993.
In that context lay also perhaps the seeds of the tragedy in Srebrenica? Genocide came to Srebrenica gradually, and the horror began to unfold in the spring of 1993. That´s when the Serb offensive started, led by Ratko Mladić and aided by units from Serbia. The large territory that had previously been liberated was reduced to a small enclave under the protection of the international community. Bosnian Army units in Srebrenica were running out of ammunition. While the area around Srebrenica was falling due to the Serb offensive and the people were retreating to Srebrenica itself, a large convoy consisting of 25 trucks full of weapons meant for the Bosnian Army was waiting in Grude from the end of February until the end of March, all the while units of the Bosnian Army in Srebenica were running out of ammunition.
People in Tuzla were waiting in vain for the convoy from Grude in order to help the beleaguered defenders of Podrinje. ( Drina Valley) President Alija Izetbegović himself traveled to Zagreb and pleaded with Tuđman to let the convoy pass. That meeting too is among the Tuđman transcripts. Izetbegović is asking for help while the Croats in return for allowing the arms shipment to pass want the relocation of the ammunition factory Igman from the Bosnian town of Konjic to Croatia. Tuđman´s defense secretary Gojko Šušak tells president Izetbegović: ”Alija, in Zagreb you have five planes ( full of weapons) waiting to be delivered and three more are on the way. Until we fully settle the matter of the relocation of ”Igman” I am not sending you a single bullet”.
And not a single bullet did pass to the Bosnian Army and the convoy in Grude just disappeared.
American diplomats noticed that Croatia was taking 50 % of the arms shipments for the Bosnian Army and that the Croats in Hercegovina were then taking their part, thus leaving scraps for the ARBiH. On January 1993 the HVO´s finacial department ordered a full stop on arms shipments to the Bosnian Army. German human rights activist Tilman Zülch was warning about the ”Croatian embargo” on arms shipments to Bosnia. That fully summarized Franjo Tuđman´s attitude towards Bosnia and Hercegovina.
At the hight of the worst Serb offensives on Krajina, small amounts of wepons were able to get through to Bihać, mostly from Zenica using a risky method of transport, by helicopter. Maybe Bihać was destened to become a another Srebrenica, but the expectations of some people were dashed by the heroism of the people of Krajina.
Croat intentions in Bosnia and Hercegovina are also laid bare in numerous documents by foreign diplomats serving in Bosnia. At that time the Serb army had reached a breaking point and was falling apart under the weight of the Bosnian and Croatian offensive meaning that the two armies stood at the gates of Banja Luka but the final push was stopped due to pressure from international community exclusively because it believed that there was a very real danger that the Croatian Army would not pull out of Banja Luka after the liberation and relinquish control to the legitimate military and civilian authorities of the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina.
When it comes to the lifting of the siege of Bihać, the role of the Croatian Army should not be overlooked, however no one has the right, and no one should allow themselves to succumb to the idea that Croatia should take credit for lifting of the siege of Bihać while overlooking the role of the Bosnian Army. Bihać was unfortunately in part a victim of a policy that to this day tries to present itself as a savior.
This article was originally published in Bosnian on August 7th 2017 on the website of the Bosnian news agency Patria.