Croatia: Catholic Church set on ending distressing injustice for victims of communist crimes

A gentle hand moves the tortured remains of victims of communist crimes in Gracani near Zagreb, Croatia Photo: Borna Filic/Pixsell

Croatian authorities have late this month uncovered a yet another horror that befell innocent people in Croatia at the hand of WWII and post-WWII Communists.

Authorities have exhumed a new mass grave (so far over 900 have reportedly been discovered in Croatia) with the remains of 30 people executed at the end of World War II near Croatia’s capital Zagreb.

The victims are believed to be cadets of a military academy of the WWII Independent State of Croatia.

The grave is quite shallow, some bones were found only 35 centimeters (13 inches) below the ground. According to the evidence so far collected the victims were young (“coming of age” years) and were brought to the forest in Gracani at the outskirts of Zagreb between 13th and 15th of May 1945, and slaughtered.

As Croatian TV HRT reported these findings are irrefutable evidence of execution with a large amount of bullets and cartridges found at the mass grave.  Several skulls had traces of bullet holes, while some of the victims had their hands tied up with metal wire.

In July of this year, 36 victims of the communist regime were found in another grave discovered in the same area and with the newest discovery that makes 20 mass graves and 783 victims of communist crimes in the area of Gracani.

At least the remains of the latest victims found of communist crimes are afforded the dignity of their bones being temporarily kept in the mortuary at Zagreb’s cemetery Mirogoj, until the planned interment in a common grave at St Michael’s in Gracani. Their remains are handled with dignity, which cannot be said for the remains of victims in numerous other known mass graves and pits across the country.

Among these neglected mass graves Butina pit near Lumbarda on the Island of Korcula, where remains of victims of communist crimes lay strewn among discarded rubbish and garbage, comes to mind.

Butina Pit communist crimes mass grave on the Island of Korcula, Croatia – October 2012

Section inside Butina Pit, post-WWII communist crimes mass grave on Island of Korcula, Croatia – October 2012

As with all victims of communist crimes – for which no one as yet has answered in Croatia or former Yugoslavia – this is how their last moments on this Earth were for them as the WWII ended (excerpt from witness statement published in an article “Way of the Cross to the Sea” by Croatian Herald, Australia on 26 October 1990):

“…The commissar and commander, both Montenegrian, with a few soldiers from Ulcinj took those people into the forest, where a pit called ‘Butina pit’ was. There they stripped them naked and started slaughtering them. Some local people helped them in this. I remember the name of one of them … As they continued doing this the dawn started to break and then they started to throw the people into the pit alive. Then they fired into the pit with machine guns and threw bombs into it. The same man from Dubrovnik told me that there were people still alive in the pit and that cries for help could be heard. The soldiers were afraid that we’d hear that and in fury attack them and that’s why they turned us away. The same person opened up a large school hall for me and showed me the victims’ clothing. There, the Partisans rummaged all night, searching for valuables. Later they ordered the man from Dubrovnik, a man from Herzegovina and me, to fold the clothes into bales and tie them with rope. The man from Herzegovina found in one of the pockets a picture of the Heart of Jesus and a family photo of a victim from Konavlje. He took it in the hope to give it to the victim’s family later. I do not know if he managed to do that… I took several photos too, in the hope to show to somebody later but the friend from Dubrovnik warned me: there’ll be a search and if they find this on you, your head will go… I fled Yugoslavia in 1957 … and now live in New Zealand”.

The fact that the current Croatian government announced the closure of the independent Office for the investigation of mass graves of communist crimes within barely two months of its coming to power (February 2012) says a great deal about its attempts to minimise those crimes and to dilute them by attaching them to its political patronage and the Ministry for war veterans. So as things stand now the Office for the discovery, the marking and the maintenance of graves of communist crimes after WWII is within war veterans ministry. The war veterans from Croatia’s 1990’s Homeland war have indeed a great deal to be unhappy about – are there among them WWII communist war veterans who have participated in the horrendous spree of communist crimes after WWII, or their descendants who do not necessarily want justice for the victims – i.e. condemnation and prosecution of those crimes even if the perpetrators may be dead?

How on earth in that cluster can victims of communist crimes receive justice!? Certainly even the name of that Office gives no suggestion that the ministry of war veterans intends to pursue full justice for these victims; it just talks of uncovering, marking and keeping the graves tidy!

This lot in the Croatian government is no different to their late, pro-communist, colleague Ivica Racan who, as Prime Minister in 2002, closed the Commission for war and post-war victims and attached its work to the Ministry of Science.

As the government keeps fiercely resisting the putting together of a complete list of WWII and post-WWII victims of communist crimes the Croatian Catholic church has October 29 announced its initiative to start the process of recording every victim fallen. According to Vecernji List, the Catholic Church in Croatia is commencing with the collection of details of victims of communist persecutions by having every parish priest collecting information about local victims.

This is the Church’s reply to the government’s avoidance of dealing with the problem of communist crimes and to its closing of the Office for the victims of communist crimes.

This initiative arose in the Commission for martyrology of the Bishops’ Conference at its recent meeting in Zagreb, under the leadership of Bishop mons. Mile Bogovic from Gospic-Senj district.

It’s announced that the Croatian martyrs website (hrvatski-mucenici.net) will soon have available for download the needed forms and material people can fill in and send to the appropriate parish office.

As the victims of the Holocaust are written on a list so too the victims of communist crimes should be. It is only a small measure of justice, but humane justice nevertheless.  Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

1,700 mass graves: 90% victims of Communist crimes

Blato, Island of Korcula, Croatia August 16 2012 funeral for earthly remains of communist crimes victims 1943 Photo: Ika/HRSvijet

In Blato, on the Island of Korcula, in Croatia, a mournful, dignified event interred August 16 the earthly remains of three men who were thrown into the Paklenica pit  (Hell pit) on the feast of St Rocco, 16 August 1943, as victims of the communist totalitarian regime.

This event serves as stark, distressful reminder of horrendous crimes committed but as yet never brought to justice. The event touches deeply the survivors, the descendants of hundreds of thousands people (men women and children) whose life was brutally and murderously brought to an end during and after WWII in Croatia, by communist Partisans.

On Thursday August 16 2012 Mate Uzinic, the Bishop of Dubrovnik, led the Mass and rites for the remains of Petar Sardelic Fire, Mirko Sardelic Fire and Dusan Separovic Burcina. Bishop Uzinic said that the funeral takes us 69 years back “to the feast of St Rocco, when these men, as many others after them, as part of communist purges that ensued, were murdered at the pit of Paklenica without any court proceedings”.

Prayers for their souls and peace in the Lord is all we can do for them,” Bishop Uzinic said, adding: “Let this what we have done for them, and they are only a drop in the ocean, be the incentive for us not to abandon the intent that every victim receives his or her name, regardless of whether we deal with racist or class or national enemies, because that’s of least importance to victims, and if an exhumation and funeral like this one are not possible, then at least a decent marking of the gravesite as sign and as remembrance. Only this way will we stop creating myths and live in myths which are perpetually a potential danger for history to repeat itself in its worst shape.”

Regarding the criminals who perpetrated those crimes Bishop Uzinic emphasized that all this is done for them too. Not to judge or convict them as this is impossible today in most cases, even useless, but to encourage them to look the truth into its eyes and head onto the road of conversion for their own and for the sake of eternal salvation. But, Bishop Uzinic concluded, there’s a systematic desire to minimise, cover up, the victims and the crimes that occurred and this is best evidenced by the fact that in contemporary Croatia cases where exhumation, identification and burial of remains of victims, such as in this case in Blato, are very rare.

Furthermore, when it comes to victims of the communist era, there’s a conspiracy of silence and events such as the one in Blato August 16 2012 are so very important.

The earthly remains of brothers Petar and Mirko Sardelic Fire and Dusan Separovic Burcina were exhumed from the Paklenica pit in late 2011, after repeated demands from family members who wanted to give them a dignified farewell and burial.

The families of the victims expressed deep gratitude to the Mountaineer-Speleological Sociaty “Spivnik” and to Vlado Separovic Markota who searched the 40 metre deep Paklenica Pit, to Fra Jozo Baresic who was the first to pray at and bless the Cross over Paklenica Pit, to Tomislav Karamarko, the former minister for internal affairs of the Republic of Croatia (currently the president of Croatian Democratic Union/HDZ and leader of the largest political party in opposition), for appointing a special police unit to exhume the remains, to court experts dr Igor Boric and prof. dr. sc. Davorka Sutlovic who identified the earthly remains. Such gratitude was expressed in the joint press release of families of Slavenka Byok, Mara Burmas, Mirko Cetinic and dr. Zvonimir Separovic (Croatia’s former foreign minister 1991/1992, Croatia’s former minister of justice 1999/2000, Croatia’s Permanent Representative to the UN 1992, the Rector of University of Zagreb 1989/1991, also known as pioneer of Victimology for many years [and current] at the helm of the Croatian Society of Victimology).

Paklenica pit near Blato, Island of Korcula, Croatia Photo: spivnik.blato.hr

There are over 850 mass graves of victims of communist crimes discovered across Croatia and Paklenica Pit near Blato, Island of Korcula is among them. In his new book (June 2012) “Hidden scaffolds and gravesites of the Yugoslav communist crimes” (Prikrivena stratišta i grobišta jugoslavenskih komunističkih zločina) prof. Josip Jurcevic records the evidence of more than 1,700 mass graves across former Yugoslavia: Slovenia nearly 600, Croatia 850, Bosnia and Herzegovina 90 and Serbia about 190.

Prof. Jurcevic emphasises that about 89% of crimes associated with these mass graves were perpetrated by communist authorities, 8% still unconfirmed, while the remaining 3-4% crimes associated with these mass graves were perpetrated by Chetniks (Serbs), the authorities of the WWII Independent State of Croatia (NDH), Germans and Italians.

That which in this story terrifies is the fact that out of 850 mass graves in Croatia only 24 have been, either partially or fully, investigated and that was – prior to year 2000; prior to die-hard antifascist/communist Stjepan Mesic became Croatia’s president. Prof. Jurcevic says that after that date all work on mass graves had been terminated.

Until more is done for the victims of these crimes, until today’s so-called antifascists cower in remorse and contribute to justice for all, the humane face of humanity will – sadly – continue receiving its desperately needed sustenance from dedicated, self-sacrificing individuals such a those as are in the families that buried the remains of three communist crimes’ victims in Blato during the past week. Let’s pray that courage to persevere with justice for victims of communist crimes spreads far and wide. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A., M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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