On May 2, 1995 Serbian paramilitary forces from the breakaway Krajina region of Croatia rocketed the center of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, killing five and wounding 121. They used rocket-propelled cluster bombs, warheads that spray shrapnel in order to maximize the loss of human life, rather than the destruction of infrastructure or military assets.
This particular attack on innocent civilians, one of tens of thousands that took place across the former Yugoslavia during the wars of the early 1990s, was particularly egregious because it violated a “permanent ceasefire” signed in 1994 between the Croatian government and those of its Serbian citizens in revolt against the Zagreb government. No one in Zagreb was taking any precautions that day, because the struggle in Croatia had shifted from war to diplomacy.
Why take note of this particular incident in a long and complicated struggle?
The reason is that yesterday the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia meeting in The Hague sentenced Milan Martić to 35 years in prison for, among his many other war crimes, ordering the rocketing of Zagreb. That Martić bragged about this particular crime to friends (and apparently the news media) didn’t help his case. And so, 12 years later, Martić now faces what amounts to a life sentence (he is 52 years old).
Of all the many war crimes committed by all sides in what Misha Glenny has called “the Third Balkan War“, the rocketing of Zagreb was by now means the worst. As bad as it was, I wouldn’t even put it in a Top 10 of horrors from those wars.
But for me, it has particular personal resonance because I happened to be in the Croatian Embassy in Bratislava that morning, giving the then ambassador lessons in colloquial English. I remember the sudden chaos in the office as his secretary rushed in to tell him what had happened, he politely told me that our lesson would have to be postponed, and then as I gathered my belongings I watched the staff standing around the fax machine (it was 1995 remember) and the television as they tried to make sense of a senseless act.
It’s a moment I won’t ever forget.