A former soldier salutes Croatian General Ante Gotovina
Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and it is fabulous. In a cool purple dusk people sat at tables on winding boulevards drinking honey rajkia, laughing, talking, just enjoying in ways many Americans can’t seem to manage because as we all know from our experiences on Pittsburgh’s Southside, with it’s charmingly named “Vomit Beach” — to cite just one example – Americans often skip the preliminaries and just become staggering drunk (which I have yet to see over here except for tourists).
In any case, my colleague knows a local woman who told us she would take us to a place tourists rarely find, up and up winding staircases to the oldest part of the city, which dates to the Middle Ages.
At a tiny bar called Titus, the presiding bluesman was a neighborhood icon who looked like an old Turkish trader, spoke like a Cossack, and sang like a delta angel.
“Jimmy,” they called him (a nod to Hendrix) and he bent notes like Muddy Waters, with just a whispered inflection of flamenco.
Titus is tiny and resembles an old Moorish cavern on a hillside – or at least what I imagine an old Moorish cavern on a hillside looks like.
Jimmy plays when he feels like it and when he feels like it people feel like showing up. Imagine 75 people jammed into the living room and kitchen of a modest American house.
He played all songs and all styles from all eras but his true genre was joy. Everyone grooving to the music, everyone very friendly. No language barriers even though we couldn’t speak their lingo, nor they ours; the music pulling everyone together. Smiles and tapping feet all around.
American iconography — Dylan, Johnny Cash, Sinatra’s mug shot from the 1930s, signed photos from Joan Baez, Nick Cave and Ron Wood – was everywhere. Wood and Cave, it seems, had stopped in and jammed at some point, as have other big-time players passing through Zagreb.
No one took pictures. No blitzkrieg of flashbulbs. Sure, we were still tourists and the regulars were still locals. But people seemed neither to care nor notice. Everyone tuned to the same Crossroads vibe. Jimmy saw to that.
So much for the music in the cafes. On to the Revolution.
Well, perhaps not revolution, although the upheavals that blew Yugoslavia apart and plunged the ancient enemies who lived in artificial nationhood for decades into a series of devastating wars marked by genocide, atrocities and “ethnic cleansing” in the 1990s continue to reverberate in political and personal conversations.
Croatian General Ante Gotovina was convicted in April of war crimes after living as a fugitive for several years. He was accused of personally supervising the murder of hundreds of Croatian Serbs and the administration of a massive campaign of violence and repression that targeted hundreds of thousands more.
In Serbia, he is a devil. In Croatia, he is a hero. Polls here show that more than 90% of Croatians believe Gotovina was scapegoated and unjustly convicted at The Hague. He has been sentenced to 20+ years in prison. I am in no position to judge and so include a BBC post that gives a timeline of political chaos and violence in the Balkans. You can Google the case yourself and make up your own mind.
What I can do is relate what I have seen and heard here.
Last night people thronged Zagreb’s central square, which is lined by cafes and clubs and is a gateway to winding streets with more cafes and clubs, and also to the “old town” which is home to ancient churches and the national parliament.
On a raised stage, musicians sang passionately about Croatia while images of the country’s scenic wonders panned by on a plasma screen behind them. People lit candles and laid flowers at the statue of Col. Josip Jelacic, a 19th Century war hero and patriot, and signs propped against the statue’s base protested Gotovina’s innocence. At a booth nearby people signed petitions protesting his imprisonment. Everywhere one sees his portrait with a one-word caption: “Heroji.”
A young woman I spoke to said his conviction was an affront to Croatia – and a sop to the European Union, which Croatia aspires to join.
“This is politics,” she told me. “This is the E.U. General Gotovina made us an independent nation and now he is convicted of war crimes. We only defended ourselves [in the war with Serbia] and now we are painted as aggressors. It is ridiculous.”
The war is over now and many of the former enemies in the Balkan conflict have sought or gained entry to the E.U. But it would be absurd to imagine the prospect of short-term economic benefits could somehow extinguish animosities that have existed between ethnic peoples, whose passions have regularly exploded into wars, for centuries. Even apolitical Croats burn at the thought that they will be considered complicit in atrocities. “I am not a big political person, but this has everyone here very upset,” my companion said. Tears welled in her eyes.
According to Radio Free Europe the conviction of Gotovina, along with the earlier conviction of another general, “was devastating to a large part of the Croatian population, which considers the two generals to be heroes of the war and the country’s liberators. The response was colorful, telling, and self-destructive. Demobilized soldiers took to cutting themselves with razors and teenagers donned Ustasha outfits from the World War II era, protesting against The Hague tribunal and the European Union.”
The general’s travails are not the only topic of political debate.
At breakfast this morning, a group at a nearby table who I took to be Croats, or a mixed group of Croats and other Eastern Europeans, were having a heated discussion about the ramifications of Croatia’s prospective entry into the E.U. and the adoption of the Euro. The Euro, a woman at the table argued, “will help us to develop a European identity.”
Her hirsute and very loud companion begged to differ.
“Identity?” he roared. “What are you talking about? Who gives a shit about identity when we will then have a country where the rich can buy a Porsche and the poor cannot afford a can of Coke?”
“I think you misunderstand me,” the woman protested.
“No,” the man replied. “I understand you perfectly. You’re just f—ing wrong.”
As I left the restaurant, it seemed that the woman was no longer listening.
But everyone else certainly was.