Croatians gather to mourn victims of 1945 atrocities

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The Independent Online

Croatians stood in mourning at two separate places yesterday. On the site of the most notorious concentration camp run during the Second World War by Croatia's Nazi regime, President Stipe Mesic expressed his "deepest regret for the innocent victims of those who tarnished Croatia's name".

Croatians stood in mourning at two separate places yesterday. On the site of the most notorious concentration camp run during the Second World War by Croatia's Nazi regime, President Stipe Mesic expressed his "deepest regret for the innocent victims of those who tarnished Croatia's name".

It was the first time a Croatian head of state had joined former inmates of the camp at Jasenovac and others who commemorate the day in 1945 when 600 inmates tried to flee the camp where tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, gypsies and anti-fascist Croats had been exterminated during the war. Of the 600 who tried to break out, only about 70 succeeded.

Meanwhile, in the southern Austrian town of Bleiburg, thousands of Croats gathered as they do every year to mark one of the atrocities of the last months of the war that is all but forgotten outside Croatia. Last week, the Croatian government announced that it planned to buy land in Austria on which to build a permanent memorial to the horror. It is a story that ought also to be well known in Britain, because it was largely due to British policies that the terrible events occurred.

In May 1945, hundreds of thousands of Croats, soldiers in the army and civilians, congregated in Bleiburg after fleeing the Croatian capital, Zagreb, before Tito's advancing partisans. The Croatians believed, without good reason, that they would be welcomed by the British and Americans and allowed to surrender. But at the Yalta conference of 1945, Stalin had made clear that he required the repatriation of citizens of Eastern Bloc countries. And since surrender was a criminal act in the Soviet Union, those returned would be subject to the death penalty.

Agreement was reached between the Soviets and the British on the repatriation of Soviet citizens "irrespective of whether the individuals desire to return ... or not" according to the words of the agreement.

As Tito had yet to fall out with Stalin, the same policy applied in Yugoslavia. The Croatians gathered at Bleiburg were duly sent back across the border by British forces, on foot or by train. The killing by the partisans began on 16 May 1945, and continued for two years. No one knows how many died, but Croatian sources quote figures between 100,000 and 250,000.

The atrocity was covered up as long as Tito's regime lasted, but with the end of Communist rule in 1990, Croats began abseiling into underground caves in Slovenia and northern Croatia, long sealed by the authorities, and finding thousands of corpses in mass graves.

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