Of all the fascinating people and situations I encountered during a trip I took to Croatia in 1995, one memory has stayed with me like no other. It was when gregarious and otherwise affable 59-year-old retired fisherman Krist Novoselic told me that he would have no problem killing people who were once his neighbors.
If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Novoselic’s son, Krist Novoselic II, played bass for Nirvana. But this was the musician’s father I was interviewing on Iz, a lovely island off Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. (That he had a famous son was coincidental.)
There was a ceasefire in effect among the Serbs, the Bosnian Muslims and the Croats while I was there. This was, of course, near the end of the parallel wars of independence Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia were waging against Serbia amid the disintegration of what was once known as Yugoslavia. That country had been held together under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who kept a lid on smoldering, deep-rooted ethnic tension by stifling nationalist pride among Yugoslavia’s six republics and two autonomous provinces. During his 35-year presidency, Russian Orthodox Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Roman Catholic Croats lived peacefully together and often intermarried in a society that was relatively cosmopolitan for a communist nation. His death in 1980 preceded the rise to power of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman, two extremely nationalistic leaders who sought, in their own ways, to veer from Tito’s brand of unity—Milosevic wanted greater Serbian control over all of Yugoslavia; Tudjman wanted greater Croatian autonomy.
The resulting wars of independence—in Croatia and Slovenia first, and then in Bosnia—divided the region’s citizens along ethnic lines, and the hatred ultimately manifested itself in Novoselic’s sentiments toward his former Serb neighbors, who had all fled the idyllic little island by the time I arrived. I couldn’t empathize with his feelings, but, then again, my home country’s never been torn apart by war.
I thought immediately of Novoselic and my time in Croatia when I heard the news that Radovan Karadzic had been arrested. I’d become intensely interested in the origins of the strife while abroad and picked up a copy of Misha Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia, which is how I learned about Karadzic’s evildoings.
Karadzic, who, backed by Milosevic, led a violent movement to carve off areas of Bosnia dominated by Serbs and add them to a greater Serbia, has been living an assumed life as a bushy-bearded doctor of alternative medicine named Dragan Dabic since 1998. The road to his arrest was paved by the replacement of key Serbian government officials loyal to the Milosevic regime with new liberal leaders in favor of bringing war criminals to justice. Karadzic is under indictment on 11 counts of crimes against humanity. Essentially, he and his top military commander, General Ratko Mladic, terrorized an entire population of innocent non-Serb Bosnians (as well as many Serbs who opposed their brutality) through mass murder, systematic rape, ethnic cleansing and generally inhumane treatment at illegal concentration camps.
Their largest single act of lawless inhumanity occurred in Srebrenica, near the Serbian border, a town that had been deemed by the United Nations to be a wartime safe zone for refugees but was protected by only a relative handful of Dutch soldiers and thousands of poorly armed Bosnian soldiers. About two months after I left the region, the Bosnian Serbs attacked and conquered the town and, under Mladic’s command, separated males from females and then executed an estimated 7,000 unarmed men.
But that was just the final grand act of their 3.5-year odyssey of terror that killed as many as 110,000 people and displaced about 1.8 million others. The most despicable tactic of the Bosnian Serbs was rape. Tens of thousands of women (estimates vary wildly, but the low end is 20,000), separated from their husbands, fathers and brothers, were held in “rape camps,” where they were sexually brutalized by multiple soldiers over and over again for long periods of time. After the war, the women who didn’t abort their pregnancies were shunned in their communities. Many of the victims still suffer from physical injuries sustained during the rapes, as well as severe depression and post-traumatic stress, and there is an entire generation of what have been referred to as “rape babies” who are now in their early teens, many of whom grew up family-less in orphanages and have no birth certificates and therefore aren’t recognized by the government.
I look forward to Karadzic’s trial, and I hope Mladic, who’s still on the loose, is found soon. It’s sadists like them who are largely responsible for the hatred expressed to me by Krist Novoselic.
Novoselic is now past his 72nd birthday, and it’s been about 12 years since he watched from across a narrow strait as the Serbs shelled the mainland city of Zadar. Hopefully, time and age have tamped down his anger and he’s long since returned to a quiet life of normalcy on that quaint little island.
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