Monday, 24 May 2010

Kistanje Blues - street names leading to controversy

Kistanje is a pleasant and lovely town in the centre of the Bukovica region in northern Dalmatia, that holds a special place in my heart. However, it's been getting a bit of bad press last month, and it's all due to street signs!

You see, national minorities in areas of Croatia where they make up the majority have a right to bilingual signs and the choice to name streets after famous people from their areas and historic events that are celebrated by their community. Recently, the town council in Kistanje has been mulling over which streets to rename and after whom. However, it has not been plain sailing, and it has caused a heated debate and controversy. (See here on Slobodna Dalmacija)

When you go round towns and cities in Croatia, you will always find streets named after the country's wartime president Franjo Tuđman and other controversial individuals like Ante Starčević, and not long ago, there were streets named after Ustaše like Mile Budak (they've since been removed). For Serbs who have returned to Croatia or regularly visit there hometowns and villages, such street signs represent an insult to their national identity and collective memory. They aren't bothered too much by streets named after medieval kings like King Zvonimir or Tomislav, but they would rather see streets in places where their people are in the majority bear the names of famous local Serbs.

In Kistanje, ethnic Serb town councillors have proposed their plan of renaming streets and squares in Kistanje after local Serbs. Ethnic Croat town councillors do approve of some of their proposed name changes, but strongly disapprove over changing Franjo Tuđman's street in the centre of the town leading out to the city of Knin further east.

Most of the ethnic Croats living in Kistanje are Janjevci, who were invited by Tuđman from Kosovo, from whence they came, to settle into houses abandoned by Serbs following the war, as part of his own "humane resettlement" programme in the 90s. Following the return of many Serbs to Kistanje and the restoration of their ownership of their property, a new housing settlement, simply known as 'Novo Naselje', was built for these Janjevci. Not long ago however, Janjevci living in that settlement have protested over their living conditions, raising their grievances about the state of their settlement, the muddy state of streets there, and complaining how the ethnic Serb officials have shown no real interest in helping them.

Most vocal for changing street names in Kistanje is councillor Božo Šuša, member of the Democratic Party of Serbs ('Demokratske partije Srba', DPS), who is one of the authors of the proposal. He has raised his dissatisfaction at the speed of the implementation of article 13 of the consititutional law for the rights of minorities, guaranteeing minorities the right to name "settlements, streets and squares [after] people and events that are significant to the national minority" in Croatia (see the Consitutional law for ethnic minority rights here in Croatian). Veljko Džakula, leader of Šuša's DPS, has also questioned, "Why does 'Franjo Tuđman street' and 'Ante Starčević [street]' have to be everywhere?"

In response to Šuša's - and even Džakula's - comments, there was a protest by Croatian veterans from the recent war led by Tomislav Čolak on Kistanje's town square. Not a Serb was in sight, as Mr. Čolak was asserting that "every place in Croatia will have in its centre streets named after Croatia's fathers" like Ante Starčević and Franjo Tuđman, even dictating to Serbs who they should or shouldn't have streets named after! Unbelievable. Other than that, he resorted to personally inquiring from Mr. Šuša of his whereabout on 4th August, 1995, which is a common ploy used against Serbs in Croatia. (You can hear his superficially mild yet verbally arrogant speach here, followed by a statement by another veteran calling for municipalities like Kistanje to be abolished due to concerns of bureaucracy!)

This looks like a classic case of "two worlds colliding" as far as post-war, inter-ethnic relations are concerned: one community looks at the world in one way, while the other looks at everything in a completely different way! Serbs would like to see street signes bearing Tuđman's name to bear different names, as they have a very low opinion of the late president based on their experiences of his policies towards them, and don't wish to be reminded of him in their hometowns, which sounds reasonable enough. However, many Croats see Tuđman as the man who brought their country independence from Yugoslavia, who fought to win its freedom from Serbian aggressors - a term offensive to Croatian Serbs who fought against the Republic of Croatia. As far as they're concerned, he is a Croatian national hero, even though he proved himself not to be a champion of human rights, and even allowed corruption to flourish after the war! Not surprisingly, any initiative to demote their war-time leader, such as this one with the street names, is nothing short of a "provocation" by Serbs.

This is understandable in plases in the world traumatised by war, in particularly inter-ethnic conflict in the Balkans. But what's worse, and is evident in this case, is the inconsiderate nature of Mr. Čolak, however gentle his tone of voice was, and others like him who wish to impose their view of history and their ideas of how things should be done upon others, even though they know that people in the Serb community don't agree with them. Firstly, he reiterates his view of history, which he has a right to do since he fought for his country Croatia, but then he proceeds to tell Serbs what's good for them and what's not! How bewildering.

The Serbs in Croatia find themselves in a morally difficult position. They do feel the stigmatisation against their people and the scorn of their Croat neighbours over the war-time antics of some of their co-ethnics, which includes serious war crimes against non-Serbs. Those responsible for such offences should be brought to justice, but many still walk free, and that contributes to the hostility that many Croats still feel towards all Serbs. Croatian Serbs do, however, wish to rebuild their communities, and at least moderately assert their identity in a multi-ethnic Croatia. However, ethnic Serb organisations and leaders often find themselves at the receiving end of right-wing Croatian nationalists, who always seem to find every reason under the sun to undermine and degrade their efforts of establishing their voice in modern-day Croatian society. And the disdain towards the general Serbian community in Croatia was obvious in the words and in the voices of Tomislav Čolak and his colleague who spoke at that protest last month.

Džakula says it best, describing this issue and others like so: "Everything that Serbs initiate is a trigger for Croats. But, why did those who named those streets that way not [care to] think [how] that [would be] a trigger for Serbs?" (Original quote in Serbian/Croatian/Serbo-Croat here)

Shockingly, only a few days after that protest, someone or some people devastated a commemorative cross in the village of Varivode near Kistanje. The cross was erected in 2004 to commemorate the murder of nine elderly Serb civilians who had stayed in their homes following 'Operation Oluja' in 1995. As you can see in the comments under that article on the Jutarnji List website, a few of them are genuinely dismayed by this incident. Unfortunately though, one of the commentators felt it was acceptable to end his comment with "ZA DOM SPREMNI", a notorious Ustaša slogan. (Even worse, you can see his name, surname and photo, since the comments came through via Facebook! Shameless.)

As you can see, April has not been a nice month for Kistanje folk. But putting aside these bad news, let's end on a lighter note! St. Nicholas' church in the hamlet of Bezbradice just outside Kistanje has been almost completely renovated, and just yesterday a joyful gathering was held to celebrate the church's renewed exterior and interior. The event was attended by 500 to 1000 locals, religious dignitaries from the Serbian Orthodox Church, folk music and dance groups, Croatian and Bosnian officials, and received coverage from the Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian-Serb media alike. All in all, it went ahead and passed without a single incident. (See pictures of the renovation in action on Moje-Kistanje.net.)

10 comments:

Sam said...

Good article again I think you always make your point across.I think all ethnicitys should have rights and name after Heroes or someone who has contribute something to that region(example:Nikola Tesla).

But what are the Serbs want to name the streets ?,if it someone who was part of RSK then of course they shouldn't be allowed to name it they were the enemy to Croatia.But the Serbs in Bosnia where they have there own entity have Memorial graves for RS soldiers and pensions for them,and Radovan and Mladic Pictures everywhere.RS soldiers are looked in Republika Srpska as heroes and I think that's wrong and should be outlawed. That be like Germans having Nazi symbols all over Poland and memorial graves for Nazis.

And for your opinion about Franjo Tudjman I agree most of it you have to say, but he was a revolutionist for all for Balkans.If he never stood up against injustice, Bosnia would never stood up either. Because Bosnian couldn't do it alone with out Croatian help.And for Croatian Serbs they should have rights to name streets after famous people from that region but not for "FALLING" soldiers of RSK like they have all over Republika Srpska.

Alan Jakšić said...

Sam, I don't think the situation in Republika Srpska will repeat itself in areas of Croatia that were part of the RSK. Afterall, whereas the Bosnian war ended in a stalemate, the Croatian war ended in a definite victory for the Croatian side.

We Croatian Serbs know the score: we lost the war, and we're aware that some of our fellow Serbs did wrong to our Croatian neighbours. Most of us accept that Krajina can never be restored. There are some who wish it could regardless of how Croats feel, which I think is very inconsiderate.

However, we love our zavičaj, our towns, villages and communities. We built up our towns under Tito, bringing them into the modern age. Our parents and grandparents survived WW2, rebuilt their lives, and then came another war to destroy everything they invested so much time and energy into.

Since that stupid and unnecessary war (as I like to call it), many Serbs have returned to their hometowns and villages to reclaim their property or to seek renovation for them. Some have sold their houses off, while others visit their zavičaj regularly, spending part of the year there. I will be going to my hometown sometime in mid July, to raise a gravestone for my father (he passed away two years ago), to see what else needs to be done around my house there, and to meet up with other Gračac folk, especially Gračac chicks!

Srebrenica Genocide said...

@ Sam, Alan Jaksic is different. He is a good guy. Only xenophobic nationalists look at war criminals as heroes. Alan does not belong to that group.

For the record: I am disgusted with convicts from "Mucic et al" trial. They participated in the rapes of Serb women in Konjic. Are they heroes? No. They are disgusting war criminals.

Alan Jakšić said...

Thanks Daniel. Sam has commented on my blog before, so I'm sure he knows that I'm not part of the nationalist scene. Besides, I'm too left-wing!

In this article, I intended to point out the differences of opinion between two ethnic communities regarding something as superficial yet significant as street names. Ethnic Serbs propose some changes; ethnic Croats agree with some of them, but not on more "sensitive" names. Then comes a protest in response to comments by an outspoken councillor. And a few days later, somebody attacks a commemorative cross placed in memory of Serbian victims.

Owen said...

Alan, please take your cap off before your father's gravestone as a salute to him for having brought up such an honest searcher after the truth!

Sam said...

I know Alan is no nationalist if he was I would of never subscribe to his blog. I think I wouldn't even bother posting a comment. @srebrenica anyone who has committed crimes against humanity in Bosnia doesn't matter if its HVO,ABIH and RS should be in jail.I heard on TV that a Bosnian Croat criminal who committed Genocide in Central Bosnia was sentenced only 7 years in jail.WOW WOW!!!. but for the Krajna situation again Serbs in krajna should have the rights to come back home and make it a great community but the names have to be friendly to the Croatian Republic.

Alan Jakšić said...

Thank you, Owen, for such lovely and sincere words. It's thanks to my dad that I became so interested in the politics of our former country, even if we didn't always agree on everything! I'm sure my dad knows now, and I'll remember your words when I get there!

And thank you, Sam, for being a subscriber to my blog. I also think that those responsible for wrecking people's lives in war, yet receive minor sentences for serious offences, is as much an insult to their victims as if they were still walking free.

Owen said...

Sorry, didn't mean not to give your mother due credit too!

Anonymous said...

i am in opposition to naming streets or institutions after 'famous' people. to me, that's practicing cult of the personality or personal belief: me-better-wiser-worthier-than-u.
that's evil, to me!

and much of the evil that happened to us everywhere was caused by just such people-- perhaps not all, but most.

i wld never name a street budak, tudjman, starcevic, et al.
bozh

Anonymous said...

croatia did attack bosniaks late in '92, i think, in order top set up a greater croatia. however, the operation self went kaput while lots of patients died from it.

croat'n [mis]adventure failed for at least two reasons [beg ur pardon folks, i am going from memory]: counter war by bosniaks was stronger than tudjman foresaw or expected and there was a call for sanctions on croatia.
in fact, at times and places croat'n forces sought assistance from bosnian serbs in order to avoid capture or defeat.
From that time on and since '94 split agreement with izetbegovic, croatia forever [we hope] gave up on uniting all croats in one land.

it does not appear that serbia is giving up on annexing parts of bosnia. imo, world wld not allow it.
we will wait and see!