‘Operation Storm’ Mark Danner OCTOBER 22, 1998 ISSUE
Standing motionless among their hulking war machines like statues in the dark, 200,000 Croat soldiers dropped their cigarettes, then clambered into tanks and trucks and armored personnel carriers and, in a sudden earsplitting eruption of grating gears, pushed forward into Serb-held Krajina. Thus began, before dawn on August 4, 1995, “Operation Storm.” Within hours Croat commanders knew their code name had been well chosen; for everywhere Serb soldiers—40,000 of them, with 400 tanks—retreated, melting away in the rising August sun. Within little more than a day the red-and-white checkerboard flag of Croatia was flying once more over the castle high above the Krajina’s “capital” of Knin.
Clogging highways, meantime, more than 150,000 Serbs clinging to tractors or cars or horse-drawn carts in caravans twenty or thirty or forty miles long moved over the border into Bosnia in one great wave. The chaotic exodus was easily the largest single instance of “ethnic cleansing” of the Yugoslav war. Meantime a triumphant Franjo Tudjman, President of Croatia—who had publicly invited the Serbs to stay in their houses, assuring them their persons and property would be protected (if, that is, they had not been implicated in “war crimes”)—said of the Serbs, many of whose families had lived on and farmed Krajina land for hundreds of years:
They disappeared ignominiously, as if they had never populated this land. We urged them to stay, but they did not listen to us. Well then, bon voyage!
As Tudjman spoke, Serb villages burned. In a cable to the State Department, a US diplomat described his drive though Knin a week after “Operation Storm” began:
The terrain quickly became a surreal mixture of burned or burning homes,…burned cars, overturned tractors,…castoff clothing and blankets…. Near Knin, virtually all [houses] had suffered some damage….
Croatian soldiers were ubiquitous…. Many were going house to house in mop-up operations. Others were resting, lounging, and drinking beer in the yards of the abandoned homes….
…Throughout Knin’s homes, food was on the tables, clothing was hanging on the lines, toys remained outside, and all of the ostensible signs of life remained, except for the presence of human beings.
The flames the US diplomat observed came not from combat, of which there had been very little, but from the main political tactic at the heart of “Operation Storm.” A week after the American diplomat drove through Knin, investigators on a Helsinki Federation Fact-Finding Mission reported they had found
evidence of systematic destruction and looting of Serbian homes and community buildings by the Croatian Army (HV), Croatian Civil Police, civilians and “arson teams”…; conflicting claims from Croatian authorities concerning civilian casualties, missing persons, and summary executions; allegations of… suspected mass gravesites….
Even as the Helsinki Federation investigators were visiting the Krajina, Croatian special operations troops were still hard at work:
…One arson team dressed in military camouflage was operating an antitank gun and firing tracer and incendiary rounds into homes in the Bulajusa …
Extract from: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1998/oct/22/operation-storm/