One reason for Milošević’s impatience to get the Slovenian war over with was his plan to take action in Croatia. Tudjman’s heavy-handed political moves had already alienated the Serbs of the Krajina, and Belgrade did all it could to build on their fear and resentment with scary reminders of the Ustaše persecutions a half-century earlier and predictions that they would soon be driven from their homes, if not slaughtered en masse. The Croatian government might have countered this propaganda by displaying greater wisdom and justice in dealing with the Serb population, but no such notion seems to have occurred to it — no one holding power in either Serbia or Croatia at the time seems to have been able to get above the most fiercely partisan viewpoint.

The Krajina Serbs, agitated by Tudjman’s statements and proposed amendments of the constitution early in 1990, began talking about secession. If Croatia could declare itself independent of Yugoslavia — it would not do so for another full year, but that was obviously its intent — why couldn’t the Krajina declare itself independent of Croatia? In July the Serbs of the Krajina established a Serb National Council, and in August held a referendum in which they voted 99.7% in favor of their own “autonomy and sovereignty.” In response, the Croatian government sent police to collect weapons from all police stations in Serb areas. Some Serbs organized a blockade of the roads that carried traffic between Zagreb and the tourist destinations of the Dalmatian coast — an attempt to chastise Croatia by interfering with its major source of income. Many Croatian officials were expelled from the Krajina, and local municipal governments, or the Serb National Council, took over national property in the area.

Serb-majority areas in Croatia: The Krajina (left) and Eastern Slavonia (right)
In October, 1990, the Serb National Council declared itself the “Serbian Autonomous Oblast [‘County’] of Krajina.” In December, 1991, the name was changed to the Republika Srpska Krajina [‘Republic of the Serb Krajina’]. The president of both entities was the leader of the former Serb National Council, a Knin dentist-turned-politician named Milan Babić. The police chief of Knin (the center of the movement and capital of the new state), Milan Martić, led the paramilitary force charged with expanding and protecting it. The red areas on this map show the parts of Croatia where Serbs were the majority; not surprisingly, the RSK claimed all of this land as its sovereign territory, and (thanks to the cooperation of the JNA) was eventually able to control just about all of it. The national ambition of the RSK, which flew the Serbian tricolor (plain version) was to merge into the forthcoming Greater Serbia.

The first shots in what was to become a four-year war were fired in the Plitvice Lakes National Park in March, 1991. The park, lying near the Bosnian border in an area largely populated by Serbs, was controlled by the Croatian government, but a force of Serb militia (consisting of policemen led by Milan Martić) and ‘volunteers’ from Serbia under the command of the notorious Vojislav Šešelj took over the park and expelled its Croatian staff. Their purpose may have been to control a road that connected two important Krajina districts, but the government was outraged at the loss of one of Croatia’s national treasures, and sent a large force of well-armed police — the closest thing Croatia had at that time to an army — to take it back.

The recapture of the park was successful, but not without a lot of shooting; two people were killed — one on each side — and 20 wounded. The Croatian police took 29 prisoners. This turn of events provoked as much outrage on the Serbian side as the capture of the park had provoked among the Croats. The Yugoslav presidency voted, over the opposition of Slovenia and Croatia, to send the JNA in to form a buffer between the warring sides, and this order was duly carried out. The army ordered the Croatian police out of the park, and out they went. Tudjman (according to Wikipedia) furiously declared that “if the JNA continued its activities it would be considered a hostile army of occupation.”

Milan Martić (left) and Milan Babić (right, in camo shirt)
Even if the JNA took no hostile action, its presence from that time on forestalled any Croatian effort to take measures against the developing insurrection. The front lines in the area were consolidated, and Serbian communities began to put up barricades. Each community had a Plitvice martyr to mourn and celebrate. A pattern developed in which Martić’s Krajina paramilitaries would invade Croatian-held territory, the JNA would be ordered in to “separate the warring factions,” and the Serbs would be left in control of whatever they had gained. The area claimed and controlled by the RSK grew steadily.

Šešelj and his White Eagles outside Vukovar
In May, there was shooting at the eastern end of Croatia, in a Serb-inhabited suburb of Vukovar, where several Croatian police and Serb paramilitaries were killed. Whatever the facts of that confrontation may have been, each side put out an account that validated its own propaganda: the Croats were Ustaše invaders intent on genocide; the Serbs were treacherous Chetniks who ambushed innocent Croat police after inviting them to meet under a flag of truce, and viciously mutilated the bodies of the men they murdered. Vojislav Šešelj and his ‘volunteers’ were again involved; he claimed that his men had killed a hundred ‘Ustaše.’ The Wikipedia article comments: “Each side interpreted the incident as a sign that its continued existence was threatened by the other side, and that secession — from Yugoslavia or from Croatia — was therefore the only course if national survival was to be ensured. As one commentator puts it, in the aftermath of the incident ‘the chances for initiatives to reach some kind of non-violent compromise were enormously diminished.’”

Ratko Mladić
By the end of the Ten-day War in Slovenia, early in July 1991, the Yugoslav National Army’s “national” quality had been severely strained, and from that time on it was increasingly made up, at all ranks, of Serbs and Montenegrins. If the JNA had so far taken little action against Croatia, that situation was soon to change. A new commander had taken over in June: Col. Ratko Mladić, later to become notorious as the leader of the Bosnian Serb army. Real war began in August: Martić’s paramilitaries, now acting jointly with the JNA, began an attempt to extend the territory of the Krajina across the narrow coastal strip of Dalmatia to the Adriatic. The first step was the introduction of ethnic cleansing. Although many Croats who lived behind the Serb lines had left, feeling an understandable discomfort there, the paramilitaries and JNA in August began the process of deliberately forcing Croats out of villages that happened to lie between them and the sea. This territory had never been part of the Krajina, but Martić explained to reporters that both the JNA (representing Serbian “Yugoslavia”) and the Krajina Serbs needed a harbor.

The ports of Zadar and Šibenik were attacked, but held out. The attackers, spread too thin to mount an assault, contented themselves with doing as much damage as they could through artillery shelling. A move toward the port of Split was stopped short of its goal. (All of these cities were later shelled by Yugoslav Navy ships while Croatian forces were attacking the JNA garrisons holed up there.)

One of Martić's men (his arm patch says
The attempted push to the Adriatic came to a halt, and the battle lines didn’t change after mid-September, 1991. Dubrovnik, at the extreme southern tip of Croatia, was attacked in October, but the Krajina Serbs were not involved; the attackers were mostly Montenegrins, with some assistance from the JNA and guidance from Serbia. Montenegro claimed to be fighting for Yugoslavia, but “its prime minister said at the time that Montenegro had to definitively settle its borders with Croatia and fix the mistakes made by ‘Bolshevik cartographers’” (Wikipedia). The city withstood a siege that lasted until December, but was much damaged by shelling from both land and sea.

The war went worse for Croatia at its eastern end, where the JNA, supported by Croatian Serb forces and Serbian irregulars, attacked the city of Vukovar on the Danube. If the figures can be trusted, a slight majority of the citizens were Croats, living mainly in the center. Most Serbs lived in the suburbs and nearby villages.

In these first few months of the war, Croatia didn’t really have an army. Tudjman had ordered the establishment of a “National Guard” only in April, 1991, but by the outbreak of real war in August only about half of its units (numbering 20 brigades) had weapons, and most of these were rifles of World War II vintage. Police were the most effective armed forces available. The National Guard eventually became an effective army, but the process took a couple of years. In the meantime, Tudjman, conscious of Croatia’s military weakness, put more trust in efforts to cultivate international support than in direct conflict with the JNA. On some occasions he frustrated his own commanders by withholding permission for risky measures — one of them accused him of sacrificing Vukovar to win sympathy abroad.

Arkan posing with his Tigers
In the spring of 1991, paramilitaries from Serbia — including not only Šešelj’s “White Eagles,” but also “Arkan’s Tigers,” led by the equally notorious Željko Ražnatović (Arkan being his nom de guerre) — had established themselves in Serb-friendly villages near Vukovar, and local Serb supporters of the Krajina revolt (often with JNA support) gradually extended their control of the countryside until the city was nearly surrounded. Croat citizens began to abandon Vukovar for safer territory.

In July, units of the JNA took up positions across the Danube from the city, in the Serbian territory of Vojvodina, and began patrolling the river in gunboats. Occasional artillery shelling and mortar attacks began in that month and continued through August. Vukovar’s population, formerly between 40,000 and 50,000, was by then down to 15,000, and Croatia’s fortunes were at a low ebb. The government had lost control of a full third of its territory.

Those Croats remaining in Vukovar assembled a defense that combined elements of the National Guard, the police, and the “Croatian Defense Force,” a militia formed by a right-wing party that more than superficially resembled the old Ustaše. Although I couldn’t find out how many were contributed by each group, the combined total came to 2,000 or 2,200. Their adversaries were much more numerous — their number fluctuated during the siege, but at its greatest amounted to some 36,000.

Vukovar under bombardment
Continuous shelling and rocket attacks began on August 25, reckoned as the start of the battle, but neither the JNA nor their allies made a direct assault during the next three weeks.

By this time it was evident to the Croatian side that the JNA, whatever its official status, should be regarded as the enemy. Every JNA garrison inside Croatia constituted a potential military threat, and the government (which was also desperately in need of equipment) finally elected to attack and disarm them. This campaign, called the Battle of the Barracks, began on September 14 and eventually succeeded in forcing or persuading the JNA to evacuate all of its barracks in those areas where the Croatian government still had control. One of these was the city of Gospić, near the western coast, where the JNA’s surrender of the town made it clear to the Knin Serbs that their push toward the Adriatic was finished. The Croats didn’t get all the heavy equipment stored in JNA barracks, but they got a good deal of it, and were even able to put a tank battalion in the field during October.

Vukovar after the siege
The small Croatian force in Vukovar attacked the barracks there on September 14, but the Serb paramilitaries simultaneously attacked another quarter of the city, which they had to defend. The Croats never succeeded in taking the barracks, and they remained in JNA hands during the rest of the siege. With Vukovar under continuous attack, the defenders could never spare enough men to overcome the garrison. The city held out against armored attacks and bombardment by artillery and from the air, but the defenders were growing weaker and Vukovar was eventually surrounded completely. Reduced almost completely to ruins, it fell to the Serbs in November.

After the Battle of the Barracks, the JNA’s leaders had begun to consider a major offensive in Croatia, and the fall of Vukovar, on November 19, opened an opportunity. The local JNA commander, Gen. Zivota Panić, believed that his troops could now take the nearby provincial capital, Osijek, and push on to Zagreb without serious opposition. But instead he was ordered to pull back. The general argued his case all the way to the top, and was finally told by Milošević himself that “we have no job there in Croat populated areas. We have to protect the Serb areas.”

He was unmoved by Panić’s argument that the army should advance “to protect Yugoslavia.” Yugoslavia no longer held Milošević’s interest — that game was over. All he cared about now was bundling all the territories where Serbs lived into a single country. Those JNA officers who had thought they were still fighting to save Yugoslavia now had to understand that in fact they were fighting to realize the old nationalist dream of Greater Serbia.

A few weeks later, in December, the two sides agreed to a cease-fire arranged under UN auspices by Cyrus Vance (who had been US Secretary of State during the administration of Jimmy Carter). Although the EU had tried without success to come up with an agreement, the UN mediator had an important advantage: he was able to promise that a UN peacekeeping force would be interposed between the two sides. That was a measure that Tudjman had been calling for, and it was now acceptable to Milošević for two reasons. First, international recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence, which had not yet come about, was now clearly imminent. Once that happened, JNA units would have to pull out of Croatia or be seen as an aggressor force. Second, the cease-fire gave the Serbs nearly all the Croatian territory — about a third of the republic — that they considered theirs.

Croatia — its territory diminished, and nearly cut in two at a point where the truce line was within 10 miles of the Slovenian border — had no intention of allowing this arrangement to become permanent, but for the next couple of years, while war erupted in Bosnia, the lines in Croatia remained stable. The division of the country had displaced as many as half a million people; one estimate suggests about 220,000 Croats and 300,000 Serbs. Although some were driven from their homes by deliberate acts of ethnic cleansing, most, as hostilities intensified, simply ran away from places where they were in the minority out of simple (and well-founded) fear of their neighbors.

The savage war in Bosnia isn’t part of this story, except insofar as it affects Croatia. One of the first objectives on the Serbian side was to create a Serb-occupied corridor running across the northern (Croatian) border of that country that would connect Serbia with the Serb-held pieces of Croatia and Bosnia and make it possible to include all of them in a geographically coherent state. The means employed to this end were often shockingly brutal, as anyone who read or watched the news at that time may remember.

Ethnic distribution in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991
17% of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina were Croats. A third of these lived adjacent to Croatia in the western part of Herzegovina (the biggest yellow area on the map), where they were almost the only national group. Nationalist feelings had always been extreme in this community — Serbs said “Nothing grows [there] but rocks, snakes, and Ustaše” — which formed and supported its own branch of Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union, or HDZ. Many went to fight in Croatia when the war broke out there. When you look at the map, it’s good to keep in mind that this mountainous country is thinly populated in many areas. The amount of red and green, for instance, doesn’t accurately reflect the proportion of Serbs (31%) to Muslims (44%) in the total population. Besides the three main groups, 8% of the population were classified as “other” — most of these were probably people who described themselves, out of political loyalty or mixed heritage, as Yugoslavs. Also, you can see that in many areas (colored pinkish on the map) ethnicities were so mixed that it was impossible to say which was most numerous.

The two-thirds of Bosnia’s Croatian population who didn’t live in western Herzegovina were scattered, most of them in mixed communities, and tended to prefer a multi-ethnic state. Tudjman, however, favored the nationalists, and sent them military supplies and equipment under the sponsorship of the HD̉Z. Its local leader, Mate Boban (a Tudjman protegé) proclaimed an independent state named “The Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna” and proceeded to make it as exact a replica of Croatia as possible: the Croatian currency, language, and system of municipal government were all made official. The Herzegovina Croats were well prepared to resist the Bosnian Serb army as it attempted to extend its control westwards, and in June, 1992 pushed them back from the Croat-Muslim city of Mostar, the first military setback the Bosnian Serbs had encountered.

At this time the Bosnian Croats and Muslims were officially allied against the Serbs under an agreement that Tudjman had signed with Alija Izetbegović, President of Bosnia and head of its majority (Muslim) party. After the Croats drove the Serbs out of Mostar, the Muslims assumed that their allies would now help liberate Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia that the Serbs had overrun, but the Croats showed no interest in doing that.

Relations between Croats and Muslims in Mostar and other parts of Herzegovina deteriorated. In several places, Croats took advantage of a strongly defended position between Serb and Muslim forces to reap economic gains, buying from the Serbs and selling to Muslim black marketeers. One such place was Kiseljak, west of Sarajevo, which the Serbs had under siege. Kiseljak was one point at which the besieger’s circle might have been broken, but the Croats, for both financial and political reasons, cynically refused to cooperate.

Mostar's painstakingly reconstructed Old Bridge, reopened in 1994
By the spring of 1993, Croats and Muslims were openly at war. In Mostar, split by the Neretva River, they held opposite sides, and (as the JNA and Krajina Serbs had done in Croatia) the Croats did all the damage that artillery would permit, destroying the Serbian Orthodox cathedral (as the Serbs had destroyed their Catholic cathedral the previous year) and demolishing most of the mosques that the Serbs hadn’t already demolished. Croatian gunners also took out the bridges across the Neretva, including the famous Stari Most [‘Old Bridge’], built by the Turks in the 16th century and considered a world treasure.

Muslim prisoners of the Croats got no better treatment than Croatian prisoners of the Serbs had gotten a year or two before. Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation quotes Stipe Mešić, at the time president of Croatia’s parliament, recalling a conversation with an HDZ activist in the summer of 1993:

He said: “Listen Stipe, I’m surprised, I was just in Herzegovina [...]. They have camps down there. They look like in the Nazi times, even worse they don’t get food and water, and are abused.’ I asked who the people in the camps were, and he said they were former neighbors, from the same villages and towns, and their only fault was that they were Muslims. Another big group there were Muslim HVO soldiers [who had been fighting the Serbs as members of a Croat-led militia] disarmed overnight and sent there. He was very surprised, especially by the treatment there.I used this information, and told Tudjman. He answered that the others had camps as well.

“Their atrocities justify ours” — one of nationalism’s most ancient and universal principles.

Croatian officers near the Bosnian city of Jajce
The brutality of the Bosnian conflict finally succeeded in getting the full attention of the greater world powers, and international involvement, though incapable of putting Bosnia back together again, had the effect of frustrating both Serbia’s and Croatia’s ambitions to incorporate everyone of the same nationality within the same state. Mainly through American diplomatic pressure, Tudjman was made to understand that he had to stop supporting the extreme nationalists in Bosnia, withdraw the 30,000 Croatian troops he had flatly denied were serving there, and give up any hope of annexing Bosnian territory. The Washington Accords of 1994, a necessary preliminary to the Dayton Accords of the following year, dissolved the Bosnian Croatian statelet into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which combined all Bosnian districts held by Croats and Muslims. (The remainder became the Srpska Republika —still separate, still Serb, but no longer destined to attach itself to Serbia.)

Not all of Croatia’s forces had been in Bosnia; the government had taken advantage of the long truce to build a well equipped and disciplined army. Now that he had been made to forfeit his hope for a Greater Croatia, Tudjman felt free to concentrate on retaking the large areas within Croatia’s borders that were still under Serb occupation. At the beginning of 1995, he announced that he would not renew the agreement that kept UN peacekeepers in Croatia when it expired in March. The US persuaded him to accept a greatly reduced peacekeeping force until the end of the year, and (more significantly) agreed that this force would patrol and guarantee not the truce lines, but the borders of the Croatian republic. This left the Serbian enclaves open to Croatian attack, and this time there would be no assistance from the JNA, which could not invade a sovereign republic. Milošević was in no position to help; he had, by that time, written off the Croatian Serbs.

Serb civilians fleeing Operation Storm
In May, 1995, a well-executed military campaign quickly took back western Slavonia; in July another campaign recaptured the “Republic of the Serb Krajina” (RSK), centered on Knin; and in November the last remaining piece of occupied territory, around Vukovar in eastern Slavonia, was taken back. There was little defense. Most Serb civilians fled, and these operations created great numbers of refugees. (“Operation Storm” against the RSK, if the estimate of 200,000 refugees can be trusted, holds the former-Yugoslavian record for the most refugees created in a single ethnic cleansing event.)

Thus the history of Croatia’s war. In the picture below, President Tudjman joins his troops in celebrating the final victory — the recapture of Vukovar.