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In Croatia, May 6, 1991, is remembered as a day when a revolt erupted in the coastal city of Split against the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, which had become increasingly less neutral in the smouldering conflict between Croats and Serbs.
But in another former Yugoslav republic, today’s North Macedonia, it was a day of sorrow as a JNA soldier, Macedonian by nationality, was shot dead.
Sasko Gesovski, a 19-year-old soldier from the North Macedonia’s town of Kavadarci was killed while on guard duty at the naval command building in Split amid angry protests against the JNA’s military presence. In the same incident, another JNA conscript from today’s North Macedonia, Toni Stojcev, was wounded.
But when BIRN spoke to people who were in Split that day, it became clear that there are still various rival versions of what actually happened, and that the mystery of who was responsible for Gesovski’s death is no closer to being solved.
Stojcev, who joined the JNA to do his compulsory military service and went to Croatia in September 1990, said he was “at the same time aware and unaware of what was happening in Yugoslavia” at that point.
“On one hand I knew very well about the incidents and the tension between Serbs and Croats in Croatia… But I decided to join the army at 19 years old and go to the [university] faculty later because I did not want to serve in the army at an older age,” Stojcev told BIRN.
“From this perspective, this turned out to be the mistake of my life,” he continued. “It may sound ridiculous, but back then, many believed that these tensions would subside, that a solution would be found for the problems and that all would be well. Nobody feared war.”
However, amid the rise of nationalism on both sides, the incident in Split was a prelude to the war that was soon to erupt as Croatia sought independence from what it saw as a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.
‘When you carry a weapon, it’ll get fired’
Croatian newspaper Vjesnik’s report on May 8, 1991 about the protest in Split. Photo: BIRN.
The protest in Split on May 6, 1991 was organised by trade unionists from the Brodosplit shipyard, demanding that the JNA lift its blockade on the predominantly Croat village of Kijevo, which had been surrounded by Yugoslav troops and Croatian Serb insurgent forces.
The protesters were also demanding the withdrawal of an armoured vehicle that had been positioned in front of the Banovina building in Split, where the JNA’s naval command had its headquarters.
The day before the protest, in the coastal town of Trogir, Croatian Democratic Union party leader Franjo Tudjman spoke to members of his party about the situation in Kijevo, and on the day of the protest, local newspapers published the text of his speech, which many perceived as a direct call for demonstrations.
As the army expected a big protest, part of his battalion with armoured personnel carriers known as BOVs were deployed to help the troops who were already guarding the naval command building.
It was agreed that the army would stay inside the building and that the police would secure the protest so that direct confrontation between the soldiers and protesters could be avoided.
“I believe that placing the BOVs in front of the building was a mistake. If they were not there, maybe all this hellishness would have been avoided. Perhaps the protestors would have broken the windows, but I doubt they would have entered the building full of soldiers,” Stojcev said.
Some of his colleagues spotted through a window that some protesters had climbed up onto the BOV that was outside the building. He then saw a JNA commander going outside with several soldiers.
Stojcev also went outside: “I saw the commander firing some shots in the air and shouting at the protesters to climb down from the BOV where they were trying to strangle one of our soldiers. I think he also uttered some curse words to the protesters. At that moment, a burst of gunfire came from the direction of the protesters,” he recalled.
He saw Gesovski lying on the ground. To this day he cannot recall exactly when he himself was also shot. Another soldier, a Slovenian, was also injured, but only slightly.
“Whether I was hurt from the same burst that killed Sasko or later, I honestly cannot remember… I did not see who killed Sasko, whether someone was intentionally waiting for an opportunity or fired out of fear, maybe misunderstanding the commander’s shots in the air, I cannot tell,” he said.
But people who were protesting that day insist on the theory that Gesovski probably died at the hands of his superior officers – that he might have been killed by accident, or even on purpose, to serve as a propaganda tool for the JNA in portraying the Croat protesters as indiscriminate murderers.
Croatian journalist Heni Erceg, who was working for Croatian television at the time, described the atmosphere as “disgusting”, and claimed that Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union party had “poisoned people with nationalism”.
On May 6, Erceg was with her team in front of the Banovina building in Split.
“According to our estimates, it was some 30 to 40,000 people which is a huge mass, amid which there was no problem producing chaos,” Erceg told BIRN.
While there is no video footage of the actual killing, people across Yugoslavia were shocked by images of the armoured personnel carrier, which was also manned by Macedonian JNA conscripts.
The footage of the armoured vehicle being taken over by protesters, several of whom climbed on top of it and tried to strangle soldier Svetlanco Nakov, who was standing in the observation shaft of the vehicle, soon hit the TV news bulletins around the then federative state.
Erceg, whose team filmed the incident, said that the footage was sent to other broadcasters via Eurovision News Exchange, a network of European public service media newsrooms, but that it was aired only once on Croatian television, which caused trouble with her superiors.
“I came to the newsroom, edited [the video] and we sent it to that Eurovision exchange, then the editor-in-chief called me… [asking] why did we release it,” Erceg said.
She said there are different interpretations of who shot first, but that the key question is why armed people came to the protest.
“This cannot be called a peaceful demonstration as they called it, if they sent a mass [onto the street] among whom were people who had weapons. When you carry a weapon, it’ll get fired at some point,” she said.
‘The army claimed he was shot by the protesters’
On the ‘Mother’s Broken Wing’ monument in Skopje, Sasko Gesovski’s name is first on the list of the 54 conscripts from North Macedonia killed in the 1990s wars. Photo: BIRN.
No conclusive findings from the investigation into the incident have ever been revealed to the public. Four protesters were arrested later by the JNA, then tried in Sarajevo in a military court for the criminal offence of assault on a military person. They were convicted, but released months later in a prisoner exchange between the JNA and the Croatian authorities.
An investigation was also launched by the public prosecutor´s office in Split, but the case was dropped in September 1991 because of a lack of evidence.
The main suspect was Croatian police officer Ivan Vrdoljak, because one of the bullets that hit Gesovski was fired from his weapon.
“During the investigation, it was assumed that only one shot from Vrdoljak’s machine gun hit Gesovski, and the other wounds were the result of shooting by a certain number of unidentified armed persons who were in the crowd,” Croatian newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija reported on September 27, 1991.
Prosecutors believed that if Vrdoljak did open fire, he did not commit any crime because the soldiers were the first to shoot, so he acted in self-defence.
Ismet Ramadani, who at the time was a lawmaker in the what was then the Socialist Republic of Macedonia, was sent to Split in the immediate aftermath of the incident as part of a Macedonian commission tasked with determining the facts about Gesovski’s death.
Ramadani said the commission’s delegates were frustrated by the conflicting claims and the scanty information they were given during their visit.
“The JNA claimed that [Gesovski] was shot by the protesters, while the mayor of Split claimed the opposite, that the fire came from the direction of the army building,” Ramadani told BIRN.
“So at the end of the day, we practically got nothing new and came back home empty-handed,” he said.
Gesovski’s death resonated strongly in his home country. A funeral in his hometown of Kavadarci was attended by some 20,000 people, during which the JNA did not miss the opportunity to blame Croat secessionists for his death and appeal for the preservation of the unified state of Yugoslavia.
At a protest in Skopje later in May 1991, thousands of people, among them many parents of Macedonian JNA conscripts, demanded that Macedonian soldiers be immediately pulled out of Croatia and other Yugoslav republics, shouting that they did not want to keep sending their children into someone else’s wars.
The shooting has since been described as a key factor that convinced Macedonians to vote to leave Yugoslavia later in 1991.
Pavle Trajanov, who was deputy Public Safety Secretary at the Macedonian Interior Ministry at the time and is now an MP, said that Gesovski’s death was “the catalyst that speeded up the process of Macedonian independence”.
‘He was in the wrong place at the wrong time’
The Croatian coastal city of Split. Photo: EPA/ANTONIO BAT.
Dragan Markovina, a Split-based historian and former president of the New Left party, told BIRN that city’s authorities have a “classic mythological relationship” with the incident in 1991.
“The story goes something like this: righteous, patriotic shipyard workers, unions plus the people of Split [protested], given what happened in Kijevo and the fact that the JNA did not protect the population who were attacked. Therefore, [the authorities] mark the event as a heroic act of resistance,” Markovina said.
Jure Sundov, a former trade unionist and organiser of the 1991 protest, spoke on Monday at a discussion event on Monday at the Split city administration ahead of the 30th anniversary and defended the denied that the demonstrators were responsible for Gesovski’s death.
“We went to the Banovina building in an organised manner, then we called it ‘a protest for life’, we asked the JNA not to be a Serbian aggressor army, but a to be people’s army that should prevent a massacre being committed by their soldiers,” Sundov said.
He said that he feels sorry that Gesovski was killed that day, but he claimed that the trade unionists did not have weapons.
Markovina noted that every year, a couple of activists come to the official commemoration of the 1991 protests in Split and raise a banner in memory of Gesovski, but are often attacked.
“Usually, the police check their identity documents and fine them for disturbing public order and peace,” he said.
These days, Stojcev said he does not hold any grudge against the Croatian people. But he has not visited Split ever since the death of Gesovski and he is still unhappy that some people in Croatia might think of him and his former JNA comrades as “occupiers”.
“[Croatian players] Toni Kukoc and Drazen Petrovic were and still are my basketball idols. I still listen to [Croatian rock bands] Prljavo Kazaliste and Parni Valjak, so no changes there,” he said.
“But when I hear that some people in Split are proud of what they did, that they started the liberation of Croatia with the attack on us, I cannot agree. From our perspective, this did not look like any kind of liberation,” he said.
“We were simply recruits… I was never overly pro-Yugoslav or overly anti-Yugoslav. We were simply doing our duty. I believe that Sasko shared the same feelings,” he added.
“I would like to see the town of Spilt erecting a plaque or at least some small memorial to mark Sasko’s death, to say that Sasko died there, not as an occupier, but as someone who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and who was an innocent victim.”
‘We prevented 12,000 Macedonians being sent to war’
Although the authorities in Skopje never took part in the wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia, and did not take sides with any of the Yugoslav republics involved, a total of 54 Macedonian JNA conscripts died in the conflicts and 120 were injured.
In the night between August 21 and 22, 1991, the Macedonian Interior Ministry, in utmost secrecy, stole the military records from the then defence secretariat which was still under Yugoslav federal control, thus preventing the JNA from being able to recruit any new Macedonian conscripts.
“It was a very risky operation, but this way we prevented some 12,000 Macedonian conscripts being recruited and sent to the battlefields in Croatia and Bosnia,” said Trajanov.
However, it took some time for the government in Skopje to pull all its nationals out of the Yugoslav conflict zones.
Macedonians voted for independence in a referendum on September 8, 1991, but this further increased tensions with the Yugoslav leadership and the JNA was still stationed on Macedonian territory.
In February 1992, then President Kiro Gligorov reached a deal with the JNA for it to peacefully withdraw, along with all its military hardware.