interview by Ivica DIKIC
STIPETIC: That career had more good than sad moments. It was difficult at the very beginning when I entered the military academy; it was difficult in 1991 when I had to make a decision on how to assist the defense of Croatia; actually the decision as such was not difficult, because everything was clear, but it was difficult to create an army... In the end, it was difficult to leave the military, especially because I wasn't treated appropriately in that process.
What happened exactly?
I was sent to retirement while still the Chief of Staff, so that I had no chance to transfer my responsibilities to an heir. Minister of Defense Zeljka Antunovic simply handed me the decision announcing that I had been sent to retirement. I was hurt that no one took trouble to explain what was going on. I guess in the last fifteen years a custom has been created that soldiers do not need explanations; instead they are treated as pawns who are supposed to obey orders. After that I was President Mesic's advisor for two years, which made up to a certain extent for the way I was dismissed from active service and helped me to prepare for civilian life.
You did not mention the war crimes investigation of the Hague Tribunal among your difficult moments? How did you feel than?
I was suspected of involvement in crimes I had not committed. I felt bad, and kept wondering why I was a suspect in these cases and had to prove that I had not been involved. However, I was not afraid, because I knew I was innocent. I must say that the Hague Tribunal investigators know everything that happened here during the war and use interviews only to confirm their information obtained from other sources. We talked about everything. I did not accuse anyone, but did offer specific facts about the conditions in which we created the Croatian Army, the conditions in which we fought and ultimately won. After that they did not find any evidence for an indictment.
Have you figured out how you became a suspect?
I am inclined to think that the Tribunal needed a high ranking officer of the Croatian Army, and I was at the time the Chief of Staff. However, I disagree that only soldiers are guilty and that only they should be prosecuted for everything that happened here. Soldiers did not start the war, nor did they drive the development of the situation. After all, politicians dictated everything. However, that is the destiny of soldiers and the army - to serve politicians and to be held responsible for somebody else's decisions.
Recently, retired general Markica Rebic stated that in early 90's the Croatian Army accepted officers coming from the YPA only to avoid accusations from abroad that Tudman was creating an Ustashe army. What is your reaction to that statement?
That is a sad and pathetic statement. Although that may be true, he should not have said that. In 1991 more than two thousand officers deserted the Yugoslav People's Army and joined the Croatian Army; they did not join in order to provide a cover or alibi for someone, but to help their nation. Rebic's statement is personally offensive for me and those who thought in that way, if they did indeed, are scoundrels, as far as I am concerned.
Do you believe that Rebic correctly described the thinking of the political leadership in 1991?
Obviously Rebic did think that way. Most likely he was not alone. I find that calculation pathetic and humiliating. Some of the people who had come from the former army were too early, and based on very unclear motivation, expelled from the Croatian Army, even though all of them were correct, honest and hard working officers dedicated to their jobs. At one time, which confirms Rebic's assertions, political purges were carried out in the Croatian Army, although there was no reason to fear people who had come from the YPA. In parallel some strange people who had no military education but were politically suitable and loyal were expressly promoted.
Perhaps, I was quieter than, for example, Spegelj and Tus and did not resist as strongly as they did. However, I was not totally spared and was actually dismissed several times. For example when I requested that the corridor in Bosnian Sava Valley region be cut...
Some generals still blame you for the fall of Posavina [the Sava valley] to the Serbs.
They don't know what was happening in Posavina at the time. Nenad Ivankovic even today accuses Tus and me for the fall of Posavina, without knowing what nonsense that is. General Tus and I were the only ones who in the second half of 1992 pressed for the corridor towards Banja Luka to be cut. We were unaware then that a political deal had been reached between [Mate] Boban and [Radovan] Karadzic in Graz, leaving the corridor to the Serbs. President Tudman never told us himself that we should not aim to cut the corridor, so that as commander of the Slavonian theatre of war, which included the Bosnian side of the Sava valley, I planned an operation to seize it. From the military point of view this was the most logical move.
In December 1992, however, when the right conditions for cutting the corridor were in place, I was dismissed from my post and returned to Zagreb. In the middle of 1994 I was dismissed again, this time from the post of commanding officer of the Zagreb military district. This happened because at the time the officers who were to conduct the final operations were being selected. I was consequently excluded from operations Bljesak (Flash) and Oluja (Storm), though on both occasions I was re-engaged in order to save some critical situations and ensure proper execution of the plans. However, I am proud that I was able to help in any way.
Who then was responsible for the fall of Posavina?
As commander of the Slavonian theatre I was in command also of the Posavina Croatian Defense Council (HVO), which consisted of eight brigades. The HVO was poorly organized, thanks mainly to the interference of politicians in military issues. Our army was not responsible for the fall of Bosanski Brod - that was due to treachery. The decision to withdraw the HVO units from Bosanski Brod was made by politicians. I never learned whether this was done as a result of the Boban-Karadzic agreement or some other. At the briefing on the evening before, everyone assured me that our lines were secure and that everything was in order. But when I arrived in Slavonski Brod on the following morning I was told that the whole army had been withdrawn from Bosanski Brod. One brigade from Rijeka was left encircled. I ordered them to force the river, which they managed to do and pull out without losses.
I asked, but never got a reply.
Did you ask Tudman?
I was asked to appear before the UNS [National Security Office] to account for the fall of Posavina. I told them that in my view it was due to treason, that I was not sure whether the treason was committed at the local level or higher up. I added that I felt in no way responsible. The president then asked me: "Who destroyed the bridge [across the Sava]?" I told him I did not know; I had fully secured the bridge. [Government ministers] Manolic and Jarnjak then said that they knew who had done it. I was consequently absolved of all responsibility.
Who had destroyed the bridge?
It was done by a Croatian Army engineer unit, but I never learnt on whose orders. But the fact that no one was held responsible for what happened in Posavina must speak for itself.
You were not among the generals who were sent by Tudman and [Gojko] Susak to Hercegovina to command the HVO. Why?
People who went there were specially chosen. They were promised higher ranks, apartments, or tens of thousands of Deutschmarks. I was never offered to go to Hercegovina. I did not approve of the Croatian military engagement in Bosnia and in particular the conflict with the Bosniaks. No one wise would seek to fight a war on two fronts, for one is bound to lose. In 1992 there was a meeting of the military command called by President Tudman, who wished to know what we thought about Bosnia-Hercegovina. General [Martin] Spegelj was the first to insist that it was necessary to preserve Bosnia's territorial integrity, because this was necessary for Croatia's defense. I seconded that view. The meeting was then suspended and we were never again invited to such sessions. It would seem we were expected to advocate annexation of part of Bosnia-Hercegovina to Croatia.
You were among high ranking officers who were excluded from the final preparations for the operation "Storm" in July of 1995 at Brijuni?
That is correct. I was at a meeting at Brijuni in mid-July of 1995 when president Tudman retired Janko Bobetko. After that, he selected a group of people who stayed for the rest of the meeting, while a different group, of which I was part, boarded a ship and went on a cruise. I did not attend the Brijuni meeting on the eve of the operation "Storm" because I was at the negotiations with Serbs in Geneva. When we returned to Zagreb that evening and reported to Tudman about the failure of the negotiations, he said that we were going the next day. I had no idea where we were going, and it is not exactly customary that I as one of the highest ranking officers on the Chiefs of Staff had no idea that the decision to attack had been made.
The public image of General Gotovina has been created for years. According to that image, Ante Gotovina is the only true hero and warrior. How does that make you feel, given that in the operation "Storm" you captured more enemy soldiers than all Croat Generals together in the whole war?
I shall limit myself to saying that in our war there were heroes. I don't think it's up to me to say who was a hero and who wasn't. I also know that president Tudman did not want heroes, did not want competition. I do not know if Gotovina is a hero, but I know for sure that he is not the only one worthy of that title.
I would not put it quite like that. In my view he is a soldier competent for certain duties at lower levels: he had superb training in this regard. He learnt something during this last war, but that would have to be reinforced with further military education for him to be eligible for the rank of general.
Do you think it right that Croatian generals found guilty of war-crime charges should continue to enjoy the rank of general?
The rank of general and conviction for war crimes absolutely exclude each other. Wearing the rank of a general, whether in service or in retirement, assumes among other things also personal honor. Anyone convicted of war crimes is anything but an honorable person. However, the Croatian armed forces do not have a worked-out procedure for stripping someone who has been found guilty of war crimes of his rank as a general. But it is never too late to develop such procedures. Similarly, it is never too late for the instruments of the rule of law to start working, although I am really disappointed that over the last fifteen years not enough has been done in that sense.
I am also disappointed by the behavior of all those associations of war veterans, which are much more engaged in politics than in protection and rights of their members. Let us say that I am also disappointed that during all these years no one has asked me for advice in connection with demining, and I spent full twenty years with my soldiers mining and demining. Even if I were the worst fool ever, I would have learned something over those twenty years, and would have been able to help. However, in this country there are many of those who think they know everything.
You seem to be pretty disappointed?
Perhaps I am, but I am peaceful and I'm trying to normally live my life.
Original headline: "Markica Rebic je bijednik!"