One heart. Two loves.

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Whether you find yourself at a Tim Hortons in Toronto, a restaurant in Stuttgart, or a café in Adelaide, chances are you’ll run into a group of Croats, speaking in their mother tongue. They may be older men talking politics, of a younger 2nd generation group of Croats talking soccer and the World Cup.

Around the turn of the last century, a tide of Eastern European immigration dramatically altered the ethnic and religious landscape in Canada. I am 2nd generation Croatian, born and raised in Canada. My parents, like many other Croats who fled Yugoslavia in the early 70’s make up a small percent of the 6.2 million foreigners that call Canada their new home. Growing up in Canada, I was often asked what nationality I was. My Italian, Greek and Polish classmates were often asked the same thing. We were all children of immigrants, and though we were of different ethnicities and cultures, there was always commonality and we could all relate to one another.

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(The iconic St. Mark’s Church in Croatia’s capital city Zagreb)

Croatia is a largely Catholic nation, a religion that survived even under the anti – clerical reign of communism. Since it is a deeply ingrained aspect of Croatian life, immigrants brought religion with them. The first Croatian Catholic church was established in 1950, in my hometown of Windsor, Ontario. Shortly after, Croatian immigrants across Canada united and invested for themselves and their children by purchasing old churches, or building new ones in cities across Canada where there was a large Croat population. Services were held in our native language and through informal measures like holiday gatherings and national Croatian holidays, churches were often the center of social functions to preserve the culture. Soccer clubs, folklore and political groups were also established, and most Croatian immigrants were involved in at least one of these branches.

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The Canadian Croatian Folklore Festival is a yearly event, held every Victoria Day Weekend since 1973. The purpose of the Festival is to celebrate Croatian Folklore and heritage through Croatian folk songs and dances which primarily attracts the Croatian youth of Canada. Children of immigrants, like myself, gather on this 3 day weekend to celebrate our other homeland, Croatia. Many friendships, and even marriages were established because of this gathering of Croatian youth.

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The Croatian National Soccer Federation of Canada and USA is celebrating it’s 50th year of existence this year which also serves as a gathering of Croatia’s youth by hosting a yearly soccer tournament every Labor Day weekend in September. Besides the excitement of the soccer tournament, the event attracts large Croatian crowds which results in many long lasting friendships. Croatian immigrants in Canada involved their children in these events, for love of their homeland, but also for fear that if they weren’t involved, that their heritage, language and culture would fade while assimilating in Canadian society.

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(Faith of Croatian workers in the USA – Maxo Vanka)

Hard work and a drive to succeed are very common among 1st generation immigrants. Most Croatian emigrees arrived to Canada with nothing but a suitcase and a couple hundred dollars to begin their new life. Even though some were educated, working in their expert field was very rare, so most had no choice but to be employed at jobs that were very hard and labourous. Many, like my father, were working 2 jobs so that they could financially support the family they were establishing in Canada, and the one they left back home. All of those things combined resulted in a set of values based on hard work, diligence and a drive to succeed. This work ethic continues with 2nd generation Croats who generally outpace their peers, and most have furthered their studies and have become successful doctors, lawyers, engineers, successful entrepeneurs and business owners. Other than the many successful frends and family in my life, another notable 2nd generation Croat that comes to mind is a young, prominent Croatian lawyer born and raised in Chicago, Mr. Luka Mišetić. Other than being a successful lawyer, he is known for defending the well known Croatian general, Ante Gotovina, who accomplished his release from the Hague in Novemeber 2012.

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(My friends and I watching Croatia play in the World Cup 1998)

Growing up, most of my friends were Croatian. Of course I had friends in school who were of all ethnicities, but I always gravitated to the Croatian friends I would see every Sunday at church, Croatian school on Saturdays, and Folklore dancing during the week. We were all 2nd generation children of immigrants who had much commonality and we could relate to one another. 2nd generation Croats have an underlying love for a homeland they have never lived in. Aside from visiting our parents homeland, we were mostly taught – either through our parents, or our communities – that we should always love and be proud of the country our ancestors came from.

2nd generation Croatians are quite clear that they are Canadians and are proud of political and national identification. Some find it difficult to hold dual cultural identification, but others, like myself revel in this as part of the adventure that is life. If you had to ask my what I feel I am in my heart, I am a Croatian living and loving Canada and I have the best of both worlds. I am able to visit my homeland every year with my husband and children, but I am fortunate enough that Canada is a diverse and multicultural country that was built by immigrants and I can be who I am.

 

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Milanović: The graves will never forgive you!

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Croatian singer, Mate Mišo Kovać released a song in late 1991 – “Grobovi Vam nikad oprostite neće” (The graves will never forgive you). “You” was the connotation for Serb rebels that went on a killing spree in Croatia. Quickly, the song became the unofficial anthem for the war in Croatia, and the fall of Vukovar. Whenever I hear the song, I am swept over with emotion, and the disturbing pictures of Vukovar start to roll through my mind.

After months of calling for a meeting, Premier Zoran Milanović met yesterday with the Headquarters for the Defense of Vukovar (Stožer za obranu grada Vukovara) in a last ditch attempt to bring resolution to the controversy of Cyrillic signage in Vukovar.

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The 4 hour meeting did not bring much resolution. The president of the Defense of Vukovar, Tomislav Josić, admits that no concrete plans have been made. They took advantage of the 4 hours with the premier, to ‘educate’ him on the current day issues that plague this broken city, and to remind him of the bloodshed taken place 22 years ago. It is unimaginable that ordinary citizens need to educate the premier of Croatia on the biggest tragedy that country has seen in modern day history?!?! If it wasn’t so sad – I’d be laughing.

The Croatian government has been given a 15 day ultimatum for the Cyrillic signs to be replaced with the old Latin only signs. In the meantime, the premier has decided to pull all police personnel that have been safeguarding the signs.

This morning in Vukovar the signs were still up but with no police presence. Many people are disappointed and frustrated with the lack of resolution, but the battle is still not over. Mr. Milanović, the Croatian people will not forgive you and neither will the graves.

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Dignut će se grobovi
Za pobjede nove
Gdje ste sada sokolovi
Obranimo snove

The graves will rise
For new battles
Where are you hawks
Let’s defend our dreams

(Marko Perkovic Thompson – 2013)

† Blago Zadro: Trpinja Road Hero

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He who dies honorably lives forever” – Frane Krsto Frankopan, 1669

What is a hero? I often ask myself that, and having 3 kids, I try to cautiously explain to them what a hero is for fear of giving them a skewed perception. My kids (like most others) think of celebrities, sports or music icons and cartoon superhero’s as such. But a hero to me is someone who risks their own life without hesitation to help others and they lie in ones heart and beliefs.

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Blago Zadro was born in Donji Mamići -Ledinci (Grude) – a small neigbouring village next to my moms in Hercegovina. At the age of 10, his family moved to Borovo Naselje, Croatia where they settled and began a new life. Blago Zadro finished school there and led a normal life with his wife Katica, and three sons: Josip, Tomislav and Robert. In 1990, Blago Zadro became active in Croatian politics, particularly in the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ – Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica) where he was elected vice president of the municipality of Vukovar. When the war started in 1991, Zadro joined the defense corps with no military background and commanded the 3rd battalion of the 204th Croatian Army Brigade (Vukovarksa Brigada).

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Trpinja Road (Trpinjska Cesta) is one of the main roads that leads to Vukovar. Blago Zadro’s unit was assigned to defend the road, which was vital for the protection of Vukover while it was under siege. Because of it’s importance, Trpinja soon became a bloodbath and the war in Croatia was finally getting international media attention.

Back in 1991, there were very little outlets from where Croats abroad could follow the events happening in their homeland. The phone connections were horrible, there was no skype, Croatian satellite or internet, and newspapers were always 2 weeks old. Many families, like mine, obtained radio transmitters and this kept us fairly current with the events. We lived on a street with many other Croatian families, and every night at 6 pm, everyone would gather at one of the houses and listen to the Croatian news. I never found it odd back then, but I do now when I look back at the fact that every family had one of the small radio transmitters and yet every night, they were adamant about listening together. I’m sure they liked to discuss the daily events, but perhaps they felt more comfort and solace, listening to the horrible news together. They were after all, strangers in a strange land, but with very deep connections to eachother. They were Croats, living together in Canada whilst feeling helpless watching the destruction of their beloved country.

I remember October 16, 1991. It was a warm autumn day, post Thanksgiving in Canada. Many of you probably wonder how it is possible to go back and remember a specific day. I had a wonderful childhood, but for many years, my parents were consumed with the war so whenever there was a significant event, it was for the most part etched into my memory that often left me feeling anxious, hopeless, and sad. So now, 20 years later, certain dates trigger certain events and they take me back to when I was this 14 year old kid.

The gathering that evening happened to be at our house. All the parents were sitting on the back patio, and all the kids were playing in the backyard – it quickly became an evening routine when the war first broke out that same summer. The parents were tuned into the staticky radio report and a few minutes later we heard gasping, followed by crying and some yelling. While defending Trpinja Road and the main access to Vukovar – Blago Zadro was killed by Serb militia that morning. He was 47 years old.

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Zadro’s body was recovered, but then later went missing until 1998. It was then exhumed along with 940 other bodies in a mass grave in Borovo Naselje. In a sad twist of fate, Zadro’s eldest son, Robert, got killed the following year in Kupres, Hercegovina. How ironic that a father born in Hercegovina was killed defending Croatia, and his son, born in Croatia, was killed defending Hercegovina?!

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There is nothing more difficult than finding the words for the truly extraordinary. As I sit here anticipating the 22nd anniversary of Blago Zadro’s death, my thoughts take me back to that warm October day and I am overcome with emotion. My children are too small to understand, but one day, I will explain to them the meaning of a true hero, and they will know who General Blago Zadro was and that he died a hero by defending his beloved Croatia.

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Veseli se, tužna mati,

Padoše ti verli sini,

Ko junaci, ko Horvati,

Ljaše kervcu domovini!

Be Joyful, sad mother

Your brave sons have fallen

Like heroes, like Croats

Shedding blood for homeland!

(An excerpt taken from HORVATSKA DOMOVINA)

Igor Gilja: Is this what our fathers fought for??

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(Is this what our fathers fought for?)

 It’s been almost 2 months since the first Latin/Cyrillic sign has been put up on government buildings in Vukovar. Much has not changed in the last 6 weeks. 7 of the 8 official signs have been taken down, with only 1 left at the Vukovar Police Station. Because this topic is such a heated controversy in Croatia, the dual alphabet signs are being safeguarded by police 24 hours a day.

On the eve of the 22nd anniversary of Croatia’s Independance Day, a young Croatian police officer was called for duty in Vukovar. Igor Gilja, 25 years old, is normally a border police officer in the town of Ilok, Croatia. He was left fatherless at only 3 years old – his father, Franjo, was killed in Vinkovci in 1991. He was a Croatian defender.  Igor Gilja and six other police offivers have been immediately suspended for assisting in taking down the controversial signs. 

Imagine putting a starving man at a table full of food? This can be compared to Igor Gilja, a man who was left fatherless. How would you react if your father was killed only twenty years years ago, and then to watch all his beliefs, core values and  principles be squashed right in front of your eyes? With an unemployment rate of almost 20%, doomed economy, and no bright future -a person in Croatia should consider themselves a very lucky to person to have a good government job. What Igor did was an act of patriotism. Just like that starving man being put at a table with an abundance of food, Igor Gilja never should have been on the job. But because he was, he decided the moment that sign came down, that some things are just worth fighting for.

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Bravo Igor Gilja! A Croatian hero from a Croatian hero’s family!!!!

Yugonostalgia: Romanticizing a regime

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(Latin, Cyrillic, who cares about those things, live life. Long live Yugoslavia, it was the best for us)

The other day I posted an article about Vukovar and the use of Cyrillic on my facebook page and shortly after, my friend acquaintance *Jelena (name has been changed) posted the above status. Fully aware it was directed towards me, I commented as did others, only to see it deleted shortly after. Her status perpetuated a number of likes (more than the 5 noted) and a number of encouraging comments, which confirmed my beliefs that nostalgia for Yugoslavia is very real.

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My parents were part of the mass exodus of thousands of Croat dissidents in the 60’s and 70’s who fled to Germany, Australia, Canada and the USA. This group of emigrants were different from those that fled the war in the 90’s. Many of the latter emigrants were from mixed marriages (Serb/Croat) and were granted refugee status in the west, solely based on their family dynamic. Many of these people didn’t want to leave Yugoslavia, and I’m sure most of them didn’t want war either, but they certainly didn’t want to stay while the ‘marriage’ of their country was dissolving. Yugoslavia was in many ways a representation of their marriage, so it was either split and go their separate ways with their own, or flee together to a neutral country where they could continue on with life.

This sentimental longing for Yugoslavia makes me want to go back in time and see this so called ‘wonderful’ life they were living. Even though I did not live in Yugoslavia, I am puzzled by this nostalgia. If Yugoslavia was this promised land of milk and honey, why did hundreds of thousands of people like my parents emigrate? Josip Broz Tito was a ruthless dictator, and a dictator IS his own country. Tito was a marshall, the supreme commander of JNA who kept his ‘nation’ brainwashed and quiet! The only way he could keep former Yugoslav republics together in a symbiosis was by giving them a so called country or federation, rebuilding it and later telling them what to think, speak and of course what not to say. And if you dared speak against his regime, you were either liquidated or you were thrown in a top secret, high security prison and labor camp on an island off of Croatia’s Adriatic coast. (The island Goli Otok was used to incarcerate Croat, Serb and other nationalist political prisoners).

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I find it ironic that *Jelena is a recent war time refugee, arriving with her family to Canada at a young age. Given that, she may only remember a few years of Yugoslavia because communism was dying in Eastern Europe in the late 80’s. Her parents most likely had decent jobs, education was free, there was new infrastructure and things were flourishing. Most importantly, there was this supposed harmonious brotherhood – a ‘brothers and sisters united in Yugoslavia’ spirit. And just as Tito tried to connect the nations and create a brotherhood in unity, he was successful in joining her parents, a Croat and a Serb, together in a union. Maybe it had nothing to do with Tito and maybe it had everything to do with Shakespeare, so while I don’t blame *Jelena, I understand where her yugonostagia comes from. Perhaps she is romanticizing this federation because of her parents union while at the same time, ignoring the fact that 1.2 million people were killed because of this regime. Whether they are members of the Croatian government, or wartime refugees like *Jelena, I view Yugonostalgics as defenders of one of the most cold, repressive and murderous systems the world has ever seen.

Herceg-Bosna: Divided people, divided borders

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Sred Duvanjskog polja, široka i ravna
Pisala se Naša povjest slavna!

Throughout our existence, Croatian’s have had a bloody and tumultuous history. I strongly believe that Croats are one of a very small number of nations that have endured immense suffering throughout our history. Imagine fighting for identity for centuries – not years – but for centuries?! Croats have been a part of many kingdoms, empires and states since approx. 910 AD.

It is estimated that in 925 AD, King Tomislav (Kralj Tomislav) from the House of Trpimirović, was sworn in as the first King of Croatia (Rex Croatorum) in the fields of Duvno, Bosna & Hercegovina (Duvanjsko Polje). Pope John X also recognized him as the King of Croatia that same year.

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His kingdom reigned over much of current day Croatia and Bosna and Hercegovina, and the borders actually went a little further than that. King Tomislav died in 928 AD, and was succeeded by Trpimir II.

Many wars have taken place on the territories of Croatia’s ‘natural’ or historical borders, and while the boundries have changed over the years, Croats living in these regions have always remained true to their heritage. The majority of Croatians in Bosna and Hercegovina live in the western part of the country, referred to only as Hercegovina, or Herceg Bosna. My parents are from this area which is 5km away from the border of the Republic of Croatia. This area is near and dear to my heart, having enjoyed many summers there, spending time with my extended family. The main source of income is from agriculture, so I enjoyed helping my family harvest their crops, whether it was picking fresh organic fruit or stringing tobacco so it could be cured and harvested.

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1984 – my sisters, cousins and I (2nd from the right) stringing tobacco leaves to be harvested

Hercegovina is known for it’s rocky terrain, very hot climate, freshwater lakes and rivers (Neretva and Trebižat), tobacco, vineyards and wines. Hercegovina is also known to historically be the most ethnically ‘clean’ concentration of Croats, including both Bosna and Hercegovina and the Republic of Croatia. Because of this, people from this area are viewed by other Croats (particularly the leftist folk) as extreme nationalists, some even calling them fanatics. Even during the communist years, when many Croats joined the communist party, most people in Hercegovina did not.

Bosna and Hercegovina is divided by 3 ethnicities: Serbian, Bosniaks (traditionally Muslims) and Croatian. Today, Bosnia and Hercegovina is decentralized and comprises two autonomous entities: The Federation of Bosna and Hercegovina (Federacija) and the Serbian Republic (Republika Srpska). When the city of Vukovar fell in late Novermber 1991 and then the massacre of Škabrnja happened that same month, there was much uncertainty with the political situation in Bosna and Hercegovina. What was more frightening was how the Croat and Bosniak population would defend themselves should Serb rebels bring the war into Bosna and Hercegovina, which was inevitable. Croatian Hercegovians were among the 1st to arrive to the front lines in Croatia, but something had to be done internally to defend the Croat population in Western Hercegovina. The Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna (Hrvatska Republika Herceg Bosna) was founded on November 18, 1991 by president Mate Boban. Soon after, the Republic of Herceg Bosna established its own army, the Croatian Defense Force (HVO).

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Many people believe that this self proclaimed republic was being controlled out of Zagreb, and that it’s main purpose was to secede and join Croatia, making a a greater Croatia, or a Croatian Banovina (the Independant Croatian state from 1939-1941). The ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) also deemed this unrecognized republic an illegal entity. In 1995, Herceg Bosna ceased to exist when the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed in Dayton, Ohio, USA. The Federation of Bosna and Hercegovina is divided into cantons, and the former republic of Herceg Bosna is now known as Canton 10.

Croatians make up a small 14% population within the Federation of Bosna and Hercegovina, and because of this, they are often outvoted by the Bosniak population. Hercegovians feel rejected from their mother country, Croatia, and they feel helpless from the Federation which is why many advocate for a third entity within the Federation. From October 1-15 2013, every citizen of Bosna and Hercegovina is being asked to participate in a census regarding demographic, economic, educational, ethno cultural and social data. It is very important that ALL Croats from Bosna and Hercegovina participate in this census.

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Croats from Herceg Bosna have been tormented for centuries, and although there is agony and meloncholy, there is also an overwheming sense of defiance against the woes that have plagued this small pocket of Croats since the early days of King Tomislav. If history has taught us anything, this hardworking, strong willed group of Croats will persevere these dark days and generations to come will continue to be true to their Croatian heritage, forefathers and motherland, Croatia.