Balkanized at Sunrise
“Tell the truth and run.” — Old Yugoslav expression
He wears pinky rings and a year long tan. He’s proudly Italian, lives in Long Island, and buddies with the local wiseguys there. He is my doctor, and he was about to make an introduction that would send me to former-Yugoslavia on a semi-clandestine job.
“Joe,” began Doctor Tony, “I got a film job for ya … His name is Jakov.” He pronounces it: “YACK-off!”
* * *
In the summer of ’97 my production company was going through a difficult time, the result of my divorce from my wife, who was also my business partner. When we broke up, I bought out her half of our small company. In an effort to keep my business and myself afloat, I had accumulated over $50,000 in credit card debt. Most went into video equipment that quickly became obsolete with the rapid advancements in digital technology.
In ’92 I won an EMMY award for a documentary I produced (“Metaphoria”). But in ’97 that statue collecting dust on the shelf was not bringing in paying work.
My cards were maxed, my income was falling, and I had resorted to crashing art openings for the free finger food that was my daily dinner. I was 43 years old, and one bus ride away from moving back in with my parents. So when a job came by that looked too good to be true, I took it.
What could be that hard about it? Gather some books, hire a researcher, conduct some interviews, then write a biography of the President of Croatia: Franjo Tudjman, the man who came out the big winner in the recent war in former-Yugoslavia, the man both vilified as a neo-fascist, and praised as a freedom fighter. No one leader in Central Europe has aroused this much controversy, and passion.
I was about to unravel the Balkan onion, the mystery of the war between the Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims, and the greater mystery of why I was hired in the first place.
* * *
Jakov Sedlar was Croatia’s cultural attaché, the most famous theatre and film director in Croatia and the official media point man for the government. He’d made a film about the Croatian priest, Archbishop Stepinac, who had a reputation as a quisling for the Croatian terrorist gang called the Ustasha during WWII.
Under the protection of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, the Ustasha ordered the forced conversion of Orthodox Serbs to Catholicism, and deported nearly 120,000 Serbs to Serbia. Their policy towards these Serbs was “convert a third, expel a third, and kill a third.” Jakov attempted to repudiate Stepinac’s compliance with the Ustasha through Schindler-like testimonials of those Jews whose lives he’d saved. To this day, the very mention of the name Stepinac can separate a room filled with otherwise party-loving Serbs and Croats.
Jakov also made a film called Gospa, starring Martin Sheen. It depicted the “miracle” of the Virgin Mary appearing to school kids in a small town in Herzegovina, (the land separating Bosnia proper from the Adriatic). A convenient miracle, according to some: the local Croatian Franciscans needed a miracle to save their parishes from being taken over by the diocesan church.
Jakov’s films reflected the patriotic nationalistic yearnings of a newly democratized Southeast European country. As art, his films were flat; as propaganda they were obvious. They were workmanlike, but not inspired or inspiring, as true propaganda should be. It was no wonder he was known as “The Leni Riefenstahl of Croatia” — but without the talent.
Jakov’s toothy smile seems as large as his massive frame, and he moves with the agile urgency native to one used to giving and following orders. He hires me to produce an animated map of Croatia for a travelogue he’s directing. He brings in a pile of brochures on Croatia: the seashore, the mountains, the industry, the nightlife — everything but a map.
Then he tosses me another brochure with a photo of Bill Clinton shaking hands with a white-haired man named Franjo Tudjman, and says: “Here is your president and our president.” He smiles proudly. “Clinton loves Croatia.”
Jakov also needs help on the script for a second film he’s making: a biography of the President of Croatia — this man Franjo Tudjman, “Clinton’s friend.” Being as ignorant as the next American on the subject, I look over the script for grammar, sentence structure, and the peculiar cultural attitudes and biases which make it as awkward as a hippo on stilts. Then there is the Jewish question.
“I think this part of the script here …” I point. He peers at the script. “This will be particularly sensitive,” I say. “Especially if you plan to screen this film in New York.”
The script describes, with scanty details, the controversy surrounding Tudjman’s book, The Horrors of War, in which he claims that the Jews helped run the most notorious Nazi death camp in Croatia — Jasenovac, or “Croatian Auschwitz,” as it was known.
“Yes, yes …” he nods, somewhat distracted, knitting his large brows. I don’t know if he is agreeing with me, disagreeing with me, or just doesn’t get my point.
“You understand? It’s a sensitive issue in New York. There’s a large Jewish community here.”
Jakov nods, says he understands.
I give him my notes, and don’t see him again for another couple of months.
When Jakov completes his film, he hands me a copy and tells me that it has premiered in LA.
I screen the film. Martin Sheen is the narrator. At the end, I see a big credit: “Directed by Jakov Sedlar — and Joe Tripician.”
Now, I don’t often mind sharing a directing credit, but I usually prefer to have actually worked on the film. At this point, my production assistant Erin, a devilish mind in a pixyish body, starts referring to Jakov as my “Croatian sugar daddy.”
A few weeks later, Jakov calls again.
“Joe, I have new job for you. A very big project, very important book: the biography of Franjo Tudjman. You will write book.”
“Yes. I want you to write official biography of Franjo Tudjman.”
“Well, I — I really don’t know if I’m up to a job like that. I mean, I just wrote this silly book about aliens.”
True. It’s called The Official Alien Abductee’s Handbook: How to Recover From Alien Abductions without Hypnotherapy, Crystals, or CIA Surveillance.
In case you doubt, it is a humor book.
Jakov speaks like a man on a mission. “Oh, yes, you do great job. You tell American people Tudjman’s life. You do great job for us.”
I wonder what is really behind his mission. So I do what I usually do when I haven’t a clue. “Well … can I get back to you?”
Over the weekend, I quickly research Tudjman. I read how he was jailed twice in the 1970s for speaking against the Yugoslav communists as part of the political rights movement called Croatian Spring. How in 1990, against huge odds, he forged the new nation of Croatia, independent from Yugoslavia.
Then I research the war that resulted from Croatia’s separation. From the view of the international community, particularly the United States, Yugoslavia had to be preserved — but not at any great cost, and certainly not at the cost of military intervention. The US was still mopping up after the First Gulf War, and Eastern Europe was a bigger priority. As nations broke away from collapsing Soviet influence, the US feared this instability would spread throughout Europe.
I read how Tudjman led his newly independent country in battle against the Serbs, how he expelled the Serb citizens of Croatia, how he presided over the fight against the Serbs and Muslims in Bosnia. How he eventually garnered America’s backing during the war, including the deployment of thousands of US and international troops.
I read how he may or may not have planned to divide Bosnia in two. Then I read about the war atrocities committed by Croatian paramilitary. This guy Tudjman may not be Hitler — or Milosevic, for that matter — but he’s no altar boy.
With each atrocity a blister appears in my mouth, followed by another, and another, until they fight each other for space. After a while I name them for areas with the most war crimes: Gospic, Ahmici, Stupni Do, Krajina …
I know then that I’ll turn down the assignment. My body is rejecting it, even though my landlord would lobby for it.
On Monday I meet Jakov.
“Jakov, I can’t write this book.”
“No, but Joe, you must. Only you must write book.”
“Jakov, I can’t write an official, glowing book about Tudjman. And even if I could, I wouldn’t. I’d have no credibility. Why don’t you hire a PR agency? There’s lots in New York.”
“No, Joe, you just write what you have to.”
“But I can only do that if I have creative control over what’s written.”
“Yeah, of course, Joe. We give you.”
“Are you sure? Do you know what you’re saying?”
“You are a great artist. You make your view of his life. You can make a really great job.”
“I want you to know that I’ll be critical.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know, but you can make great job. And we pay you $40,000.”
“When do I go?”
* * *
“Doc, I have to thank you for getting me this gig.”
Doctor Tony smiled slyly: “I told Jakov: ‘Joe’s the best guy for the job, so don’t fuck him over.’”
“That was awfully nice of you.”
“Now, Joe, I want ya to speak to my pal Lenny. He owns a string of restaurants on the island, and his son wants to get into show business …”
* * *
The next day a check arrives at my door for $10,000. It is drawn on the Croatian bank account of the Zagreb National Theater.
When the check clears I head to a downtown bookstore to make my first purchase of the month: $347.53 of books about the Balkans. “The fascist Tudjman,” reads one. “Idi Amin of the Balkans,” raves another. “Il Dulce of the Balkans,” proclaims a third. Others are less kind. Tudjman inspires hatred. But also admiration — at least in the pamphlets Jakov doles out: “savior of his people,” “freedom fighter,” “founder of a new nation,” “historian and statesman,” and “Croatian George Washington.”
One glossy brochure speaks of the “indispensable partnership” between America and Croatia. America aided Tudjman in the war, pushed him to forge an alliance with the Bosnian Muslims in the fight against the Serbs, looked the other way while Croatia imported arms from Iran, deployed some 30,000 troops to NATO’s peace-keeping operation in the region, and contributed millions of dollars in financial support to the struggling new nation. The US’s stated objective was to achieve stability in Southeast Europe, after the bloodiest war in the area since WWII, one that caused over 200,000 deaths and over one million refugees, with tens of thousands tortured and raped.
Yet criticism from the US government also hounds Tudjman: many see him as bearing an amount of responsibility for igniting the war, intransigent in efforts to re-integrate refugees, and downright belligerent on anything to do with the Bosnian Muslims. Were America’s interests in preventing a failed Bosnian state — a state where Muslim terrorists could thrive — at odds with Tudjman’s designs on Bosnia? Or were they stolidly aligned?
The more I read, the more I realize that I need an objective road map, something to help me traverse the treacherous terrain of Balkan history and politics.
The following week, while I ponder the gaping hole of my international ignorance, a second $10,000 check arrives. This one is drawn from the American bank account of an Italian restaurant in Queens.
In addition to directing government-financed films, Jakov is a master in raising money from the Croatian diaspora, the ferociously loyal group of Croatian patriots whose $5,000 and $10,000 donations also helped import arms into their homeland during the war.
One young patriotic son of Croatian emigrants is George Rudman, a deceptively earnest Croatian-American, who responds to a notice I post at Columbia University for a paid researcher. In person, his unassuming and diligent manner contrasts with his vociferous opinions, which he laces with horror stories about his time in the war.
George traveled to his parents’ homeland to attend the country’s first multiparty elections. Later, during the war, he worked as a translator for the Bosnian Croats during four years of international peace negotiations, often interpreting for Tudjman. He was also a driver for visiting diplomats, many so oblivious to the dangers of Central Bosnia that George had to physically restrain them from walking into minefields.
At first I’m thrilled to have found someone so knowledgeable and accommodating to assist my venture by compiling a prep book, including timelines and a bibliographic “who’s who in the Balkans”. But soon I wonder whether I can trust George as a source. Sitting at my kitchen table, drinking his black coffee, I watch the boyish face beneath prematurely thinning hair, seeing his narrow eyes dart back and forth, as if fighting the urge to look over his shoulder for some unseen sniper or incoming mortar shell.
“The Croats never had a chance,” George relates, sotto voce, “When the Serbs took over the Yugoslav army, Croatia was left with nothing but a couple of police vans and some World War Two rifles. Tudjman was the one with a vision, and the only one who was able to lead the country through the war and into independence.”
“But don’t you agree that ethnic cleansing — ” I look closely for a response to the term, but, other than a blink, George betrays nothing. “ — that ethnic cleansing was used in the war as a way to move populations and claim territory?”
“By the Serbs, oh yes.”
“And by the Croats?”
“To a lesser extent.”
Was it lack of motive, or lack of opportunity?”
“Opportunity, definitely.” George seems to enjoy this part of the discussion. “Look at the history, Joe. All these wars were wars of reprisals. You kill my relative; I burn your house. You burn my house; I slaughter your village. But, Joe, these irreconcilable ancient rivalries are no different than those in Cyprus and Greece, Northern Ireland, or the Middle East. It’s just the Balkans. The Balkans. The Great Powers don’t care about the Balkans. Until they can’t control them.”
He is getting worked up now, saliva forms at the edges of his mouth. “The Great Powers all talk so grandly about human rights. But just where do you gather an effective, efficient fighting force from a civilian population overnight? Where else but the black marketers, thugs, and killers-for-hire? How come there weren’t more atrocities should really be the question.”
George delivers his realpolitik with such knowing ease and chauvinistic humor that my suspicions almost melt away.
“By the way,” I ask, pouring him another cup of coffee, “do you know a guy named Jakov Sedlar?”
“The film director? Yeah. Is he the one behind this deal?”
“He’s arranging all my interviews.”
“Oh, Christ, don’t let him do that!” He practically spits his java. You’ll be given a tour of the presidential palace, a few drinks, and then they’ll send you back to your hotel room.”
“What else can I do? I don’t know anybody there.”
“I’ll give you a list of names,” George says, putting down his coffee and brandishing a pen. “Now, there’s my buddy Ratko in the military …” Within minutes George has a page full of contacts in Croatia, some placed highly in the government, but none placed anywhere on Jakov’s itinerary for me.
* * *
The first thing I notice are the long legs. They stretch way into first class. She is 26, with short dark hair and a crooked smile that could turn from sweet to sour in a second. Jadranka was named for the Adriatic, but her attitude was anything but serene. On the flight to Zagreb I keep thinking, ‘Boy, they grow ’em tall here.’
“I don’t care much for politics,” she says in near-perfect English. “I know that there is a much greater difference now between rich and poor. There is no more middle class in Croatia.”
Jadranka is one of many urban Croats who have seen the economic power in their country shift to the top. She thinks more reform is happening, but only for private companies. And many of them have ties to Tudjman.
But she is also critical of her country’s work force. “In America, the people are always striving for things. Here, they do not like work. Here they are stuck in the Communist thinking.”
Then, remembering I hold an American passport, she leans over and smiles. “Hey, Joe, whatcha gonna do?”
“That’s good American slang, Jadranka.”
“I learned it from my ex-American boyfriend. He is shit.”
“Well, I’m sorry.”
“It is true. So … whatcha gonna do?”
“How about dinner later?”
* * *
“Joe, watch out for the women.” George is consulting with me via e-mail. “All the women in Zagreb are five-ten. If you want to score, you’re gonna have to try some old Italian Imperialism, gumba.”
“What’s the legal age of consent in Zagreb?” I joke.
“Same as in any other country,” he writes back. “Whatever you get away with.” He ends with a strong warning. “Listen, my fine American friend, you had better watch out for the women. They’re dangerous.”
* * *
I’ve checked into Zagreb’s Palace Hotel: old, borderline seedy, once-imperial — where the managers pipe Lounge Muzak into the elevators, unaware that, in America’s urban hot-spots, its revival has become hip.
I call a potential interviewee.
“Dobra dan, hello. This is Joe Tripician, I’d like to speak with Vlado — ”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Joe Tripician. We heard you were here. We were wondering when you’d call.”
“But I didn’t tell you I was here.”
“Yes. We know. Welcome to Croatia!”
* * *
During the day, Jakov arranges for me to interview government officials from almost every single department, one after another after another. Never have I been lied to by so many people in such a short period of time. And they all want to explain, very politely, about the true cause of ethnic rivalries that started only recently — if you call the eleventh century recent.
From my research I knew that Tudjman’s cause was his father’s cause, who was a leader in the Communist Croatian Peasant Party: both father and son fought for autonomy and sovereignty for the republic of Croatia, untied to the centrist Serb-dominated Yugoslav federacy. Those in control didn’t like rumblings of independence from any of the republics, and Croatia was economically important. Its oil rich land, and lucrative Dalmatian coast, brought in millions to the Presidency in Belgrade.
After WWII, Tudjman’s father falls out of favor with the new regime. It happens on a warm April day in ’46, in his own quiet village, in his own quiet home. Tito’s secret police enter the house and shoot his father and his stepmother. The official story is suicide — communist jargon for murder.
In 1989, Tudjman established the first democratic party in Croatia, and reintroduced Ustasha flags and symbols to the streets of Zagreb, calling them ancient symbols of the Croatian state, decades after Croatia’s image had been tarnished by the events of that Nazi-backed gang.
The war in the 1990s began when Croatia and Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia, and the central government fought back, commandeering the Yugoslav army (the JNA) and inciting the Serb minority in Croatia to rebel. It had been years since Tudjman was a desk general in the JNA, and he would soon miscalculate the actions of his old army buddies, whom he thought wouldn’t attack when Croatia declared independence.
By 1991, the first shots were fired, and Croatia lost over a third of its territory to the JNA and rebel Serb forces. Tudjman was about to go down in history as the first democratically elected president of Croatia — and the last.
Under Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic (“the Butcher of the Balkans”), both Croatia and the more homogeneous Slovenia were labeled fascists, and, for a time after the war started, the label stuck. My assignment appeared to be a big rehabilitation job.
In the eyes of the West, nationalism in the former Yugoslavia was a bad thing, responsible for the bloody war of ethnic cleansing. For Franjo Tudjman and his supporters, Croatian nationalism meant a road out of 35 years of stifling communism and a century of second-class citizenship. Nationalism is patriotism, and in that sense the war in the former Yugoslavia became a civil war, proving again that close relatives always fight the fiercest.
* * *
“Why are we going to your hotel room? I have to go home.”
“We had a lovely dinner, a nice walk. I thought you’d like a drink from my wet bar. Jakov is paying for all of it.” I give her my most charming smile, but Jadranka isn’t easily conned. She’s suspicious that I’ll just blow into town and then blow out again, which is, of course, what I’m doing.
She suddenly quizzes me about her country.
“What are Ustasha?”
“They were the Nazi-puppet regime in Croatia under Ante Pavelic.”
She nods, not totally impressed. “And what are Chetniks?”
“They were the Serbian guerilla force under Draza Mihailovic, who eventually collaborated with the Italians and the German-controlled, Serb-run government in Serbia.”
“Yes. And what caused war today?”
“Well, when Milosevic took control of the JNA and incited Serb militants, there was a massive imbalance in firepower when Serbia first attacked — ”
“Okay,” she admits, “you will write a good book.”
Then we enter my hotel room.
“Oh, I see.” She practically shouts as she enters. “Mr. Double-Bed! Why do you need a double bed, Mr. Double-Bed?”
“It’s just what they gave me. I didn’t ask for it. I use it to spread out my books, and — ”
“I think you have some other plan in mind, Mr. Double-Bed.”
“No, look. Let’s just have a drink, and then you can go home.”
“I think I go home now.”
“Don’t go. I’m lonely here.”
“Is that the only reason you want me to stay, because you are lonely?”
“No, of course not. I like you.”
“Well … I can’t make love to you. What if I fall in love?”
I don’t have an answer for that. It isn’t in my phrase book.
Later, I realize I should have responded: “Well, what if I fall in love with you?” But that would be giving too much away. A bad and often lethal habit in the Balkans.
At the end of my Croatian tour, we have our last dinner together in the center of Zagreb, over several bottles of Italian wine, and she swears she isn’t at all enamored of me.
“You are kind American, Joe,” she says, “but I don’t really love you. I couldn’t love you, not at all.”
“Well — okay. How’s your dinner?”
“You have to take sides, Joe.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have to write with point of view, how this country is corruption, how America watched as war start and did nothing, how you come here to tell us what to do and you know nothing. We want your help, we don’t want you here, now go.”
“Oh — you want me to take sides, but you want me to go?”
“Yes, everyone must take sides. And no, you must not go — ” She now softens, gives me that crooked smile, “until you get me job at American Embassy.”
After getting no more than a kiss from her, I promise to do what I can. But I can’t get her a job at the embassy; I have to maintain my journalistic impartiality. They’ll think I’ve gone native.
I worry about what others think, and what they might do. Will I be attacked as a propagandist, or as a muckraker? Will I trust the wrong people, or will my next trust be betrayed? I feel the need to go incognito, for fear that I will be revealed as a charlatan or instigator.
My mission, now that have I accepted, is known to everyone I interview. My secret, however, is known to a select few. Many would not be willing to discuss Tudjman, especially if they knew the Croatian government was behind it, my “creative control” notwithstanding.
Jakov gives me free rein. From my room in the Palace Hotel I plan, meet, and interview whomever I want, trying to track down the dirt — any dirt. I discover a pattern of propaganda and political agendas designed to make Tudjman look bad.
Anyone with a connection to the former Yugoslavia has deeply felt convictions, and it is easier to identify the allegiance of those with whom I speak than to discover the truth behind their stories. This operative reveals a recurring pattern in the political behavior of former Yugoslav citizens. Attribute it to socialist-induced laziness, fear of deviation from the norm, or the hold history has on the region.
Is this the reason Jakov hires me: an EMMY-award winning New York documentary producer with no ethnic, political, or ideological connections to ex-Yugo? Perhaps. Or perhaps it is his government’s belief that no dirt on their President will turn up.
I keep digging.
* * *
The following day I’m in the hotel dining room, surrounded by cheese, beef, pork, sausages, and plum wine: the typical Balkan breakfast. Then Jakov enters.
“Joe, good morning! Oh, such a light breakfast, please to have more.”
“No, I really couldn’t, thanks.”
“Joe, big day today. Today you meet President.”
“Yes, but first we have lunch — at mass graves. Come!”
He drags me outside into a waiting black sedan, where we speed off at 90 miles per hour to a small airport and a smaller helicopter. It’s an old Russian Mi8-MTV-1 chopper used for transport by the Croatian Air Force during the war.
Jakov crawls up front to sit next to the pilot. I climb in the rear and sit next to two rabbis, invited guests of the Croatian government, which is trying to ease relations with the Jewish people.
“I met him, and I don’t think he’s anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi, or in any way sympathetic to Nazism. I didn’t see any of that,” says Rabbi Jack Bemporad, Director of the Center for Christian Jewish Understanding.
“What about his book, The Horrors of War?” I ask Jack, over the shuddering din inside the chopper.
“A good deal of the sources that he uses are not the best or the most objective, but given what he had to work with, and given the kind of education people got under communism, I would say that that would be probably normal. You can’t expect him to be sensitive to the sort of things that it took Vatican II and thirty years of dialogue to bring about.”
Our helicopter flies over scenic Vukovar by the Danube: vacation spot of choice for Eastern Europeans, sympathetic socialists, and Germans.
In Croatia the war began with the return of ethnic cleansing: its goal was to move the non-Serb / non-Orthodox population out of their homes through acts of unimaginable terror. Villages were burnt to the ground or bombarded, and hundreds fled into neighboring villages and far-away towns carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Denied access to the Adriatic through Gospic, the Serbs pushed westward from Slavonia. Then, in scenic Vukovar, the Serbs laid siege, bombing it continuously for 87 days.
At the end of the three-month bombardment, nothing remained but the shells of gaping buildings.
In one of the first acts of terror, Serb irregulars marched in, rounded up the survivors, released the women and children, and massacred some 300 men in a hospital. Their bodies were dumped into a shallow grave near the village of Ovcara. Today, with camera crew in tow, Jakov leads the rabbis and me to it.
We stand at the foot of the barren field, hidden from the main dirt road outside of Vukovar, the cameras jostling for position, going in close for a sound bite. The rabbis speak eloquently about inhumanity, compassion, and memory, while I stand back, trying to distance myself from a potential Jakov sideshow.
I feel a pressure. A giant wave is pushing me from this scene too large to comprehend. One tall Croat soldier, standing nearby with his semi-automatic pinned to his chest, taps me on the back. He speaks briefly in Croatian, gesturing to the surrounding fields. I think he is showing me where to go to get out of camera shot, and I start moving in that direction.
For some reason this only makes him speak louder and gesture more broadly, and I respond by moving quicker. That’s when Jakov lunges over and grabs me, hauling me back to the van.
“No, Joe, this way,” he says calmly, friendly. “You want to stay away from landmines.”
He said it like I was caught jaywalking — jaywalking into 800 thousand landmines. I have to be careful not to blow myself up — at least before I write the story.
But first I have to find the story, while still being a guest of Jakov and his government, and remaining independent and keeping editorial control — and staying out of trouble.
And keeping the label “paid propagandist” from sticking to me. As for Tudjman, he labels all dissenting voices as unpatriotic. He is thin-skinned to criticism, and hence easy to lampoon, as the Croatian satirical magazine The Feral Tribune proves every week.
When Feral ran an issue showing a faked photomontage of Tudjman and Milosevic in bed naked together, Tudjman hit the roof. The editors faced a seditious libel suit for insulting the President, which, in Croatia’s amendment to the criminal law, is illegal.
The article at issue was “Bones in the Mixer.” It ridiculed Tudjman’s proposal of “national reconciliation” to rebury the remains of the Ustasha leaders alongside the remains of their victims in Jasenovac: “Croatia’s biggest underground city,” says the headline. Then it compared Tudjman with the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
Lawsuits and late-night phone calls seem to be the preferred methods of pressuring the independent media in Croatia. In this, Franjo Tudjman never learns that cracking down on his critics gives them more visibility — to their defenders and their detractors.
Meanwhile, as we drive to the presidential house, I struggle to erase that image of naked political coitus from my mind.
* * *
The ride to the Presidential Residence is scenic. The winding road is carved into a meticulously maintained forest and leads upwards to a hill with an understated stone sculpture. It resembles a nature conservatory, only with armed plain-clothed security, metal detectors, and overly costumed Palace Guards, decked out in red and gold, with bayoneted rifles and fez-like hats: like a low-budget version of the Buckingham Palace Guard.
The estate was one of Tito’s many residences built in the Cold War early-’60s style familiar to anyone who’s seen a James Bond film or visited the UN. There are, of course, no red stars, but there is one bust of Tito placed alone and unattended in the foyer.
Through security, we enter the main hall, “where many heads of state were entertained,” I’m told. It boasts a parquet floor, one baby grand piano, 18-foot ceilings, and a plush carpet the entire 54-foot length of the hall. A small reception table now holds a compact make-up kit for the President’s TV appearance.
A flurry of aides and the ubiquitous security men mill around for an hour before he makes his appearance. Most, except the security, begin to get the breathless jitters one sees in underlings forever concerned about their jobs.
And then Franjo Tudjman enters, relaxed and smiling wearily at the make-up lady, comically annoyed at having to undergo another TV interview. He is a man of 76, with a rigid back and expressive hands. He speaks without once unclenching his teeth, and always through the right side of his mouth, somewhere between a stroke victim and W. C. Fields.
His emotions are all on the surface. He is passionate about his country, and short-tempered with all criticism. He is a man completely made of politics. To every question, personal or political, he answers in terms of historical forces and allegiances: fascism, communism, and everything and everybody in between who may be the enemy of Croatian nationalism. It’s a familiar rap to anyone acquainted with his beliefs, and one that informs every single action since his run for the presidency. Other opinions and facts are simply not addressed or acknowledged. It’s a single-mindedness befitting a military man, but questionable for a head of state.
On the day before this interview, October 6, 1997, a deal is announced in which ten Bosnian Croat war crimes suspects “voluntarily” surrender to The Hague. This announcement is followed by the release of a $40 million credit to Croatia by the International Monetary Fund, an amount much less than my literary advance.
I decide to test his anger with a few of the questions.
“Mr. President, yesterday Croatia agreed that its war criminals will surrender themselves to The Hague. Do you see war crimes as an unavoidable part of war? It was reported that when you learned about the death camps in Bosnia in 1993 you expressed no surprise, saying that others had camps as well.”
He grimaces: is it the blinding TV lights or anger toward my question?
“I do not think it would be correct to speak about a people who voluntarily go to The Hague Tribunal as war criminals,” he speaks through his interpreter, “because according to any national or international law — they have been indicted, but nobody is guilty until proven so.”
Tudjman pauses. Moments later the interpreter pauses. I start to ask a follow-up, when Tudjman continues. “I definitely am in favor and support investigation of all such cases, but again, let me repeat, I am not in favor of regarding in the same terms those who caused the aggression, who caused all these tragedies, who jeopardized both the existence of Croatia and the life of its citizens, and those people who during various operations could not curb, could not control their feelings of revenge, their wishes to retaliate.”
The tone of his response is filled with such finality that I wonder if our interview is over before it even begins.
In my mind I quickly replay an interview I conducted back in New York.
Roman Latkovic was a journalist from Croatia’s only independent daily newspaper, Novi List, when he wrote an article titled, ‘Tudjman Is a Shameless Tyrant’, in which he scurrilously blasts Tudjman for, among other things, labeling the Croatian opposition as Serb sympathizers. During a prime time broadcast on HRTV several pro-government journalists attacked Latkovic as an “enemy of the state” who wanted “to liquidate the president.” These comments were aired with Latkovic’s photograph.
“But that was a very serious thing,” says Latkovic, now a political refugee in the States, “because, you know, you have two hundred thousand people with arms in Croatia, and they are completely insane after the war, and they need enemies; they have no Chetniks or Serbs, etcetera, as a enemy, but now they have one single person who is an enemy; and after that madness start — because I received more than one thousand five hundred phone threats — it was recorded. And that was a manhunt, and I was forced to hide.”
After the death threats, a bomb went off in a car similar to his wife’s car directly outside her home. The next day Roman received a phone call: “next time we will not miss you and your Serbian whore.”
Deep paranoia still enveloped Croatia in 1996, one year after the war, when Roman’s opinion piece was printed. While extremists were threatening his life, whipped up by the media who quoted Croatian officials suggesting that Serbia or Italian fascists were financing him, Tudjman loyalists, according to Latkovic, were phoning furiously to pressure him “not to use such harsh language,” while other journalists complained that Latkovic was “stirring up trouble” for the rest of them. “The slaves think that they have to do much more than boss required them to do,” bemoans Latkovic, “and this is the worse part of Croatia.”
I return to Tudjman, plow on with my next question. “Mr. President, there are critics who claim your political party has replaced the communists as a one-party regime, in which your appointees dominate the economy, and in which the main media are under strict control.”
He bows his head, laughs, then responds, as if placating a baby who had wet the carpet.
“Well, I know that you are well intentioned, so I will try to answer some of these questions. First of all, let me claim that there are more democratic rights being granted in this country that in any Western country.” He coughs, swallows, and continues like a patient with a bad taste of medicine on his tongue. “And I can also claim with full responsibility that I personally, and the Croatian government, have less influence, less impact on TV, than is the case in your own country, the United States.”
“But when I spoke recently with Mate Granic, your foreign minister, he told me, off the record, that your government ‘quite frankly has more control of the TV media than the press.’”
In that split second, Tudjman turns angry, huffing and shrugging his shoulders like a turkey in a cockfight.
“Mate, Mate, Mate …” Although his foreign minister is not in the room, I can only imagine how he is now feeling the cold hands of Tudjman slapping his face in disapproval. Then Tudjman falls silent.
“Mr. President, is that the end of our interview?”
That is the end of our interview.
He leaves immediately. Seconds after he’s gone, the entire crew has a good laugh; and everyone is grabbing heavy drinks from the kitchen. It is 11:30 a.m. They’re imagining how the old man will chew out Mate Granic, this poor, liberal cabinet official — the Little Monk, as he is nicknamed — who was once considered to be next in line when Tudjman dies. I hope I didn’t just change the course of international politics. I make a note to purchase my return ticket.
* * *
I couldn’t get Jadranka to fly with me to Sarajevo, let alone make love. So, once in Bosnia, I hire a female interpreter and invite her to dinner.
During yet another political interview I find myself staring at Aida’s perfectly shaped Bosnian lips, then into her sad scared eyes. With each bout of translation, the pol’s presence recedes into the posh room; his boring litany of ancient disputes becomes an instant memory. I am interviewing a wind-up toy, but sitting next to a living doll.
“So, you American writer, you come to Sarajevo with thought we are all fundamentalists,” Aida later scolds me.
“Not at all. You’re all very urban, very cool.”
Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, always had a reputation, deserved or not, of being the region’s model of multi-culturalism. The Sarajevans pride themselves on their Western-like urbanity. Throughout the years when the war nearly destroyed everything in their city, the people displayed resilience, optimism, and humor. “Come back Tito,” read one graffiti scrawled across a building, “All is forgiven.” Beneath it, a tart response, from the mouth of a cartoon drawing of Tito: “You’ve got to be kidding!”
Aida tells me how she would defiantly put on make-up, blue eye shadow and red lipstick, and proudly walk down the streets of Sarajevo. “I wanted to taunt the snipers,” she explains, “to say to them: ‘I am wearing Lancôme, and you can just wear your leaves and mud.’” Her mother was hit by a piece of mortar that had ricocheted off a building, wounding her in the leg. “You didn’t know weather to go out or stay inside, both could mean the end of your life, yet you had to find food, water, and to try to live your life.”
Now, with the trams running and electricity working most of the time, Sarajevans are back on the streets, proving once again that they would not choose between living on their knees or dying on their feet — they would rather be drinking in the cafés.
“And you, Joe. Are you married?”
“No, but I used to be. I was married for 13 years until my divorce.”
“Oh. And how many children?”
“I don’t have any.”
“No children? No, that cannot be.”
“No, no kids.”
She shakes her head, and says, “You wasted 13 years of your life. Excuse me, I’m sorry, but you did.”
“Well, I don’t exactly see it that way.”
“Look at Ali here.”
We turn and watch her three-year-old throw sugar across the Holiday Inn lobby. He screams in joy, then trots over and rubs his cute, sticky face into mine.
“He likes you.” She glances at me with mischievous hope. “He needs a visa.”
* * *
That night I speak with George via long distance, and again hear how he values power and the power players, and why he continually discourages my interviews with the opposition in Croatia, one by one: “He’s marginalized … He’s out of the mainstream … He’s an old Partisan living in the past …”
Were Tudjman’s designs on Bosnia really a security concern, as George insists? Or, as his critics claim, was Tudjman’s goal to create an ethnically pure, religiously sacrosanct “Greater Croatia”?
This question leads me to the most intriguing character I meet in the Balkans, my own Deep Throat insider, who I call the Priest.
* * *
Sarajevo International Airport, October 1997: A portable military control tower sits on the tarmac, a lonely guardian on what was the front line of the war in Bosnia. During the war, the airport became a sitting duck for Serb artillery from all sides in the adjacent mountains. Surrounding the runway now are rows upon rows of modest two-story houses without roofs, their dark sockets leading to empty wooden shells. In between these ghost structures, three or four families have set up homes, with laundry strung across the tiny terraces, and a TV satellite dish angled outward. It is two years after the war, and Sarajevo has had its spirit drained. It is a ghost town without ghosts.
The road from the airport is the notorious Sniper Alley, a short jaunt smack-dab in the middle of former Serb artillery, a road where luckless pedestrians were killed daily. It is only a few kilometers long. Along it, the buildings stand empty, racked with pockmarks from bullets and holes from mortar shells.
The Serbs, I am told by the Priest, are blackmailing the new Bosnian central government by preventing sufficient supply of Russian gas to enter. Heating systems are thus seriously devastated. Devastation: the word most used to describe Sarajevo.
By November, a leaked report by the executive body of the European Union would detail the wholesale loss to the Bosnian government of tens of millions of dollars, mostly from black market and other criminal trade, by all three ethnic groups. The city’s infrastructure is at a virtual standstill; electricity and the trams are running, but very little else has been rebuilt. The view outside the world’s most famous Holiday Inn is a typical testament: a twenty-story building with almost its entire facade blown away; nothing but iron girders and cement remain.
The Priest is one of the top twelve people in the Bosnian Croat Federation and is undergoing a spiritual or, as he puts it, “existential” crisis. During the war he is close to the Last Loyal Soldier, Mate Boban, the head of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Croatian ruling party, and the man who, had he not died, would surely have been the most wanted Croat war criminal in the world.
‘The Priest’ is the name I choose to describe the man’s shattered faith in God and Croatia, and his corrupted belief in democracy and the human spirit: another legacy of the war. The Priest is as sophisticated as Tudjman is simple, as questioning as Tudjman is doubtless, as disaffected as Tudjman is devout. I meet him at a café hidden behind the main square. He chain-smokes — measured, fastidious — and relates how he lost three secretaries to sniper fire in his office, “their heads exploded as they fell to my feet …” He casts his eyes down.
The Priest’s complaint targets an obstinate Tudjman and his regime’s tight control over the Croats in Bosnia. The Priest is also one of many who claim that Tudjman cut a deal with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to divide Bosnia between them. This is the story I read and hear about over and over again, as the most recently told conspiracy theory in the Balkans and one vehemently denied by Tudjman (who sued a human rights activist in Zagreb for accusing Tudjman about it in print).
In late 1991, under the leadership of Tudjman, Mate Boban, aka “the Mobster,” creates the Croat Union of “Herzeg-Bosna,” an autonomous region in Bosnia-Herzegovina with its own police, army, currency, and education, where most of its population is Croat. By mid-’92, it comes into conflict in districts with Muslim majorities, with atrocities committed by Croat militia.
In April of 1993, Croat forces launch a coordinated attack against Muslim civilians in nine Bosnian villages. Most of the victims are elderly people, women, children, and infants, including several who are burned alive. Years later, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia affirms that there was no military justification for the attacks.
The Priest claims that he has in his possession documents linking Tudjman directly to these war crimes.
“When can I see the documents?” I ask. But the Priest brushes off the request, continues his reminisces with a growing agitation.
“In 1992, I was in Sarajevo, in Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a prime figure; I could do everything. And Bosnian Prime Minister, Haris Silajdic, was calling me every day: ‘Why don’t you involve your people in diplomacy? Why don’t they help us, your Muslim neighbors? Our people are being slaughtered. We can work together to fight the Serbs, etcetera, etcetera.” A pause as he drags from his cigarette. “My hands were tied.”
“Why was that?”
“The Zagreb government prevented us from doing so.”
“Are you saying that Tudjman’s Bosnia policy was to fight the Muslims — even at the time when Croats and Muslims finally joined forces against the Serbs?”
“Your friend the President — ”
“Tudjman’s not my friend.”
“Well, he never understood Muslims, never lived with them as we did in Sarajevo.”
“Does that explain his designs on Bosnia to partition it? Were his plans just a land grab, to claim much of Bosnia for Croatia?”
“As you say so.”
“And Mate Boban was the man who implemented Tudjman’s plan?”
“Boban was much too complex a character. He took Muslim refugees into his own home during the height of the war when chaos reigned; when Serbs, Muslims, and Croats all fought each other.”
“But Boban set up the death camps in Bosnia.”
“It was at the behest of your friend, the President. I have a huge documentation about what was happening. I have kept letters, for my own protection.”
“You have signed orders from Tudjman to Boban about the camps?”
“The problem with Boban was his total devotion to Tudjman. That was faith; that was belief; that was incredible trust in the President. Boban was an ultimate servant, if I may say so: the ultimate servant and the last loyal soldier. That was his disaster, of course — he never objected.
“And when the pressure on Tudjman to disband the camps became too great, Tudjman relieved Boban of his post. At the end, Boban was turned to major enemy — and major scapegoat for Tudjman.”
The facts I am turning up make me edgy: to paint the complete picture of Tudjman the man without lauding him or vilifying him means I can please no one. Though I had warned him, Jakov won’t like the critical parts of the book, while the majority of the Western press will think it a rehabilitation job done by a hired hack: a propagandist and Croatian mouthpiece. In former Yugo, so goes the Balkan psychology, you are either with us or against us. You either take sides, or are put aside.
* * *
“Hello, Joe. Watcha gonna do?”
The phone connection was scratchy, but I distinctly recognize the sweet-and-sour voice.
“You are enjoying Sarajevo?
“I miss you. When are you coming back to Zagreb?”
“I thought you didn’t think of me that way. Don’t confuse me.”
“Well, I didn’t think so either, until you left. Now, my darling, I miss you, and — when will you come to see me?”
“I don’t know. I’m flying straight out of Sarajevo to Vienna, then back to New York.”
“Then, my darling, I will come to New York … Joe?”
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“You won’t change your address on me, will you?”
In the Balkans, they are always one step ahead.
It is not necessarily true that the Balkans automatically breed violence — any more than a recently divorced man automatically becomes a rutting dog; this is something I would have almost believed — if it hadn’t been for my newly acquired habit of falling in love with every other woman I meet. A habit that, combined with a US passport, could land you in trouble in any country, but particularly in the Balkans.
* * *
“Club Jez,” she tells the cab driver who speeds off down Sniper Alley like the war’s still raging.
Aida’s hand is on Ali who fiddles with the back door window, then the handle. The door flings open and the cold air hits us. I lunge for the child and catch him by the collar. The door is swinging wildly now as the driver negotiates a turn with the aplomb of a drunken teen.
“Look out!” My alarm is batted off like Ali’s own yelps of glee.
“Oh, don’t worry.” Aida shuts the door. For her it is a small annoyance, like wiping snot from his nose. Or mine.
At the café, she uses a scattershot, double-barreled technique. Her chances are good that she’ll hit one of my buttons.
“So why are you scared of me?”
“I’m not scared of you.”
“You are afraid I will steal your money.”
“No, of course not. They didn’t want me to come to Bosnia, that’s all.”
“I think you need to have family.”
“I have a family, back home.”
“You told me you didn’t have kids. You are lying?”
“No, I’m not. I don’t have kids, I — ”
“You need kids. Everyone needs a family. Buy me another double scotch.”
We close the café, and head back to the Holiday Inn via Sniper Alley, where, just three years ago, Aida was shot in the shoulder by a Bosnian Serb sniper when she was five months pregnant with Ali.
The cab drops her and little Ali in front of their home, nestled safely in the police station behind the hotel. Her mother would be sleeping now. For two years, since the American-engineered Dayton Peace Accord, the city has been able to sleep. No mortar fragments will fly in through the window and wound her mother again — as long as NATO remains on the ground.
* * *
Tudjman saw in Bosnia his chance to reclaim ancient Croatian territory, not simply to secure a buffer zone to protect Dalmatia. And he used the Bosnian Croats as his proxy, not wanting to risk Croatia for Bosnia. His goal, which he inherited from his father, never changed: to get a highly homogeneous, expanded Croatia under Zagreb’s control. As Richard Holbrooke tells me: “During the worst fighting in Bosnia, ’93-’94, when Boban was directing offensives against the Muslims, Tudjman could have stopped the war; but because it fit into his goal of a mini-state, he let it continue.” To fulfill this dream he recruited Boban, his devout, loyal servant.
“He was a blowhard,” recalls Peter Galbraith about Boban. “I met him in July of 1993 … And I listened to him for about an hour go on about the Muslims and their evils, and then I said, ‘Now I’m going to tell you something. It is utterly unacceptable to use food as a weapon’ — because they were holding up convoys — ‘we cannot tolerate holding prisoners in inhumane conditions …’ And he was really taken aback. And so he promised he’d try to do something about the convoys and the prisoners. The next day he called me, said they were going to release the prisoners. And, in fact, over the ensuing days they released more than four thousand prisoners … But as was typical in this war, Boban’s wonderful promises disappeared after some weeks, and the Bosnian Croats began again to block the convoys. At that point I realized that the only way to deal with Boban was to get rid of him.”
According to Galbraith, he and US Special Envoy to the peace talks, Charles Redman, worked over Tudjman with a carrot and a stick: join with the Bosnian Muslims in an alliance and “the door to the west would be open to Croatia,” or face sanctions by the UN Security Council. Tudjman finally agreed, and sent his Little Monk Mate Granic to the peace talks in Bosnia to negotiate the Washington Agreement, which would merge the Bosnian Croat and Muslim armies.
The Croatian Bosnian military, however, threatened to scuttle the emerging agreement, so Galbraith saw his chance to eliminate Mate Boban, the Mobster, from the scene. During a late 1993 BBC interview, Galbraith linked Mate Boban to the atrocities committed by the Croats in Bosnia — stopping just short of calling him a war criminal. The interview got a lot of play in the tightly controlled Croatian press. “To me,” says Galbraith, “it was a signal as to what was coming.”
* * *
August 28, 1995: Another mortar hits the Sarajevo market, killing 38 people this time. President Clinton presses NATO into running bombing raids against Serbian military targets. After 16 days, this bombing campaign finally pushes the Serbs to negotiate a settlement.
Like a teacher chastising a group of schoolyard bullies, Secretary of State Warren Christopher forces Tudjman, Milosevic, and Izetbegovic to rise and shake hands. Thus begins the “proximity talks” at an air force base in Dayton Ohio, which the US was brokering under the strong hand of Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke. Nicknamed “Raging Bull,” Holbrooke’s hands-on style affronts many in the State Department, but proves effective in negotiations.
“Franjo Tudjman is the key to Dayton,” Holbrooke emphasizes to me.
Tudjman entered Dayton with all the chips, and collected even more. He spent considerable time alone with his old horse-trading buddy Slobodan Milosevic. Franjo and Slobo, who are on a first-name basis, cut a number of land deals, including one to hand over Serb-controlled territory to Croatia.
Within three weeks the Dayton Peace Accord was reached. The agreement, which has been called the most expensive ceasefire in history, has kept the peace since ’95. This is the peace that now keeps Aida and her mother safe.
I should thank Franjo Tudjman for being that key to peace. He wagered his country and his people on his vision of an expanded Croatia, and was able to build a credible army almost overnight. By bullying and manipulating his Bosnian Croats he was able to co-opt them, and use the Croat-Muslim alliance to fend off the Serbs. He also kept the Muslims at bay and unbalanced through his close negotiations with Milosevic.
And he garnered respect — of sorts — from the international community. Certainly they used him to broker a long-delayed peace from the hell of an ultimately avoidable war. And he placated their human rights demands by sacrificing Boban. Even while I denounce his goals, I thank Tudjman. Tito himself would have been impressed.
Yet the old Yugoslavia is now ethnically cleansed, with half of the Serb population gone from Croatia; and “Brotherhood and Unity,” that old Partisan slogan, a faded memory in outdated textbooks. Tito, who had been so successful in keeping the virus of nationalism from infecting his ethnic groups, would also have been saddened and afraid. The new Yugoslavs are celebrating their ethnic, religious and geographic differences, not their similarities. After four years of virulent fighting, terror, mass graves, detention camps, torture, rape, wholesale destruction of homes and villages, and the flight of millions of refugees, the people of ex-Yugoslavia have learned to hate once again. Reconciliation and repatriation are more than a challenge for those left alive.
* * *
“It’s because of you that I am leaving.” I was feeling playful now, teasing Aida with my feeble jokes.
I take her by the shoulders and push her gently against the bed, daring to nuzzle her neck. That is the closest thing to sex in my entire trip. Even so, in strict Muslim terms, we should now be married.
“No, I can’t.” She is annoyed, slightly alarmed, and confused. I hadn’t planned to do this. All morning I made promises to myself not to come on to her.
I pull back. “I’m sorry. My behavior is not professional.” I stand up, walk to my suitcase, and continue packing. “Please forgive me.”
“No, it’s okay …” Again those sad eyes. “But you are leaving today.”
“Yes, you know that.”
“And you will ask Ambassador in Vienna to get me visa.”
“I’ll do what I can,” I lie; then, like a true American cad, offer to massage her shoulders.
“No, I can’t. I am Muslim. I took confession.”
“Oh … but you drink.”
She just shrugs, smiles, and frets. My plane leaves in an hour. I take her with me to the airport. We sit and have a coffee. My gut is twisting tighter and tighter, my smile is getting weaker and weaker. I buy her a gift — then one for Ali. It’s like I’m trying to assuage my guilt as an American for not stopping the war. Or for my not taking sides. She did not take sides. This was not her choice.
Throughout my trip I’ve been bludgeoned as an American by those I interviewed for not understanding the ancient rivalries, for not intervening soon enough, for not organizing a massive airlift to carry refuges to my New York City apartment.
With Aida no bludgeoning was necessary. I managed that myself quite nicely. What she felt for me I do not know: perhaps more than an escape from Sarajevo, and somewhat less than love. Towards the end of my trip it was clear that I was ready to accept any form of affection as an open invitation. It was also clear to those who saw my eyes that I was not ready for any responsibility other than writing this damn book.
What I saw in Aida’s eyes that day at the airport was an unfathomable sadness. She told me of Ali’s father who went off to war a pumped-up patriot, and who returned changed beyond recognition: an errant, hardened soldier who had committed his share of atrocities. When a family member becomes unfamiliar, the stranger seems more familiar.
“Is that why you come here, American writer?” she asks, letting me hold her warm hand in mine. “To get away from your divorce?”
“I loved someone, once, very much.”
“And it was not your wife?”
I shake my head. “No, she wasn’t. She was the greatest love of my life and I let her go.”
“And you want to punish yourself in Bosnia?”
“I just couldn’t stand living a secret life anymore. I felt guilty as hell. And I guess I’m just a coward — letting her slip away like that. It’s the biggest mistake I ever made.”
“And so, now you run away again.”
We share a smile, and my flight is called. I wave goodbye to the two sweetest creatures in Sarajevo and start to board the plane. After one month of travel and interviews, I am leaving the Balkans, with more questions than answers.
* * *
For the first time in one thousand years Croatia has independence, at a time when it’s fighting its Ustasha past, and the pressure from the West who want it to live up to the Dayton peace accord, with all its negotiated contradictions: the ethnic coalition within ethnic partitioning, the demilitarization amidst the American-backed arming of the Bosnians, the international support of democratic candidates — even when they’re not as popular with the locals as the hard-line nationalists who defended their homes. War criminals to us, war heroes to them. Pax Americana, and Occupation by NATO.
Is that the way Jadranka and Aida thought of me: an occupying foreigner?
Or was I just their ticket out?
* * *
On a New York bound flight, I work at getting inside Franjo Tudjman the man.
There are two strains in Tudjman’s character, both formed in early life, which steer his actions in two directions: the Freedom Fighter Tudjman — the Partisan peasant organizer and enemy of fascism; and the Presidential Tudjman — the leader of the nation, and defender of his race and religion. Both dovetail within the texture of Croatian heritage, and are made explicit in Tudjman’s courting of both the hard-line nationalists and the Zagreb liberals.
An agile politician, and a visionary, within Tudjman live also the abandoned son, the betrayed patriot, and the besieged warrior. Is his core weakness the same strength that sustained him in jail, that helped carry out his father’s dream, and lead his army in a battle against the Serbs and his diplomatic corps against the bias of international opinion?
In his attempts to “reconcile” the medieval symbols of Croatian statehood, did he fall into the trap set by Serbian and pro-Serbian propaganda that paints all such efforts as Ustasha revivalism? In his driving battle to avenge his father’s death, perhaps he gave over part of his control to that bitter urge; the Master General, the leader and ruler of the first independent Croatia, became a subject to this emotional coalition inside, tagging him as one of several Croatian Spring politicians who waged a campaign for democracy motivated by the dark contours of an ex-prisoner’s ethic.
* * *
Back in New York it isn’t long before I meet Indira, a tiny young woman from tiny Montenegro, a country squeezed between Serbia, Bosnia and Albania. Indira used to work in the government offices of Serbia’s eventually indicted war criminal President Slobodan Milosevic, where she would drive a girl friend to an ambassador’s house for daily assignations, doing her nails in the car as she waited.
“There is a name for people who do that,” she explains when I tell her of my misadventures with the women of former-Yugoslavia. “They are the foreigners who visit battle-worn countries looking for cheap thrills, whichever way the wind blows they go. They are called ‘windfuckers.’”
“And is there a name for the women who attach themselves to these foreign men?”
“Yes,” she declares. “Sluts.” She laughs, thoroughly enjoying this. “What is your American expression? Lie down with dogs and put up against fleas,” she chuckles.
“Thank you; that’s a very kind thought.”
“I think a book about Tudjman is unnecessary; any book about any of those leaders. This is what I told reporter from Financial Times: everybody is interested in power play and backroom deal, but no one remembers people. People who fought, people who suffered, people who died. That is story should be written.”
* * *
In a few months of constant pressure from Jakov I complete a 400-page manuscript. One day after I deliver it to him, he calls me in.
“Please, Joe, you write very good book, but please to consider make small minor changes.”
“First: the title.”
“What’s wrong with In Tito’s Shadow? I think it’s very descriptive — of the man, and the country.”
“No. Please not to mention anything from old communist time.”
“Well, that would make it substantially shorter.”
“And please not to mention war crimes.”
“I can’t do that.”
I refuse to make the changes. I’d rather the book go unpublished. Jakov had hoped to co-opt an authentic American voice, to lend the biography more credibility, to make it palatable for Western consumption. Instead, the author bit the hand that fed him.
Jakov, however, is not easily discouraged.
“I have a problem with this,” I tell Jakov who is bent forward on the edge of his seat, a towering figure threatening to topple. “If I write the book Eddie wants me to write, and you expect me to write, that would be the end of my career. You understand, don’t you? I can’t write propaganda.”
“Please, please, please, Joe. Just to write on whole very positive image of President; how a great man he is.”
I look again at the letter in my hands. It is addressed to “My dear friend,” and is signed “Eddie Bell”: the executive chairman and publisher of HarperCollins UK. More troubling than the content is its language. Typed on plain, non-letterhead stationery, with exceptionally rudimentary and clumsy English, it cannot possibly have come from a major publishing house.
“I knew this was going to happen,” I confess to Jakov. In the six months we have worked together I have grown to like him. “There’s just no way I can do this, even under a pseudonym. Not after I interviewed all those people. They put their confidence in me.”
More begging, until I agree to look over the notes in the manuscript and get back to him.
Alone, I look over the letter once more. It reads as though it had been translated from Croatian. That day Eddie Bell is in the news as one of Rupert Murdoch’s henchmen who killed Chris Patton’s book on China because its critical appraisal of China’s policies threatened Murdoch’s business interests there. But even a politically motivated publisher would never affix his name to: “We have thought up a new a [sic] slogan: Tudjman, an Enigma or Lie and Truth in the World of Politics.”
The comments in the manuscript are another laugh-riot. In the margins, with a large blue marker, next to the section where I report on the suspected assistance the Croatian military had received from the US, someone has written: “Give me a break!”
Oh yes, and all of the sections on war crimes have been deleted.
I leave his office with one burning question: What did Martin Sheen see in Jakov’s glossy brochures that I missed?
I call Random House and speak with Eddie Bell’s assistants. No one there recognizes the name Jakov. “YACK-off!” I repeat, “YACK-off!”
Over the next week I offer Jakov two options: let me publish the book on my own, or pay me to keep it off the market.
But the discussion never advances.
In December of ’99, Tudjman dies of stomach cancer, escaping The Hague, unlike his fellow Balkan leader Slobodan Milosevic, who every day wrote his autobiography on the stand, until his own death in 2006.
Tudjman’s death throws control of the country into the hands of politicians most likely to destroy it. By election time, however, the Croatians express their revulsion against the corruption and plunder of their country by Tudjman’s party by voting back the old-time communists, so reviled by Tudjman as “rank political amateurs.”
* * *
I watch Tudjman’s death within the borders of my own privilege, where American foreign policy habitually resembles nothing more than the wanderlust of an aging womanizer; where I contemplate my next journalistic encounter, trusting it might answer a few more questions, but not counting on it.
I once thought of returning to Zagreb, with its petit bourgeois shops, first-run American movies, and Jadranka’s sweet uncertain smile; and to Sarajevo, with its rows of trinket stores, endless café nights, and Aida’s hopeful eyes. But I remain in New York, with questions: What is a writer’s obligation to history? Whose history? If history is written by the victors, who speaks for the vanquished — and in whose voice?
Shortly after Tudjman’s death, I send the information I collected and interviews I recorded to the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague. I can no longer in good conscience hide the identity of certain anonymous sources. At this point, I feel it’s time for me to come out from the cold.
* * *
In the decade following my Balkanization, I learn a few more things.
Like so many of the claims, conspiracies, and dark stories of political dealings and betrayals in the Balkans, the Priest’s documents never appear, despite the many lovely smoke-filled hours I’d spent listening to what a nice man the Mobster was.
In 2000, when Stipe Mesic, one of Tudjman’s rivals and the newly elected president of Croatia, takes office, a large stash of audio tapes are discovered. They reveal conversations Tudjman had with his aides that disclose his direct knowledge and cover-up of Croatian war crimes. “If it hadn’t been for such men,” he is heard to say about the perpetrators, “we wouldn’t have Croatia.”
The Priest is back in Zagreb, working in the financial industry, where many public leaders go when they want to retire — or hide. He names his company after the Greek goddess of glory and good repute.
George most likely freelanced for the CIA. I am not able to prove it, but the pieces fit together too nicely. He now lends his support to the Croatian-American Association.
Before his death, Tudjman signs rights to build a power station in Croatia to Enron, in the hopes of speeding Croatia’s entrance into the WTO through Enron’s political connections, and help prevent him from being called to The Hague.
Dr. Tony saved the life of Jakov’s daughter, and this was the real reason I was hired.
In January 2009, Jakov announces production of a new film, to be directed by his son, featuring Armand Assante and Britney Spears.
On April 7, 2010, Croatia’s new President Ivo Josipovic formally apologizes for Croatia’s role in the Bosnian wars.
In May 2013, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia found that Tudjman took part in the war crimes against the non-Croat population of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
On July 1, 2013, Croatia becomes the newest member state of the European Union.
Contrary to rumors, I do not take another paid writing assignment. I don’t care how lovely are the lotus blossoms of North Korea.
Excerpted from “Balkanized at Sunrise”