On this day, October 8, twenty-two years ago, Croatia severed its last remaining ties with Yugoslavia. This was not the act of a separatist ethnic group desirous of autonomy embroiled in a civil war. It was the deliberate but reluctant act of a sovereign nation that, having exercised its democratic right to secede from a tyrannical Communist federation, found itself under sustained attack by the sixth largest army in the entire world. It was the act of a nation that exercised diplomacy in the worst of circumstances, agreeing to and waiting out a three-month moratorium on its declaration of independence despite the most grievous provocations. By the time the moratorium ended on October 8, Vukovar was in the middle of a siege the likes of which had not been seen since Stalingrad. Only four days earlier the Yugoslav Air Force (the second largest in Europe) had bombed the clearly-marked hospital and destroyed its operating theatre. This was a hospital desperately struggling to cope with the scores of (mostly civilian) wounded it received each day, and even two years later (when I was there) patients had to supply their own anaesthetic and bandages as the hospital still had none. One week before the delayed declaration of complete independence, the Yugoslav National Army laid siege to Dubrovnik, the world heritage site known as the Pearl of the Adriatic, and only the day before the Yugoslav Air Force attacked the capital Zagreb, bombing the Banski Dvori in which the President of Croatia was meeting with the President and Prime Minister of Yugoslavia.
It took more than four years, during which Croatia suffered continual warfare and occupation by the enemy, for Croatia to be completely freed of the Yugoslav menace.
I don’t mean to be a wet blanket – quite the contrary, my family will be celebrating this day with an appropriately indulgent consumption of food and wine – but I think it’s important to remember the context of Croatia’s independence and salute those who paid the ultimate price defending her freedom… and those who survived but will never recapture their lost youth. We should also remember that the members of the Croatian Sabor (parliament) patiently but resolutely completed the process of peaceful independence amidst scenes of slaughter and destruction. It is this sort of uncompromising but just determination that a nation needs, not just in a time of war, but also in times of peace and relative prosperity. It would be an awful shame if the sacrifices of yesteryear were squandered by those more interested in pandering to the international community than safeguarding Croatia’s sovereignty and independence. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
On a happier note, Croatia no longer resembles the burnt out ruins of the above photo. It is one of the most vibrant and attractive places in Europe (and the whole world). If you have the opportunity, I highly recommend you visit. In the meantime, you can whet your appetite at the aptly-named LikeCroatia. Happy Independence Day! Sretan Dan Neovisnosti!