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The Homeland War

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Newspaper clipping that asks for U.S. recognition of Croatia. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.

        A significant event that especially brought America's Croatians tighter together was the Croatian War for Independence, which was fought in close proximity to other battles for independence from former Yugoslavia, ruled in Belgrade by the Serbian government under a communist regime. The potential for independence brought on a lot of cultural events to get everyone stirred up for what was to come. 

        “There was like this rejuvenated energy,” said Peter Hazdovac, Croatian American and San Pedro native who works at Adriatic Tours. “Everybody was really excited to be Croatian.”

        Jack Barič, Croatian American filmmaker, was born and raised in San Pedro. Both of his parents immigrated from Croatia, specifically the Zadar area, and met in the United States in the early 1960s. Having a desire to leave the communist regime of Yugoslavia, Barič’s father and his cousins fled to Italy where they lived in refugee camps for a few years before moving to America. 

        Having started kindergarten knowing only Croatian since that's all his family spoke, Barič had to learn English in school. It was normal to move to America, leave your old identity behind and focus on being American, so that’s kind of what Barič was focused on as a child rather than solely focusing on his Croatian heritage.

        “I don't think that was what really influenced me to think the way I did,” said Barič. “But I think one of the things I do remember growing up [with] was this driving ambition, our goal to fit in and to feel very American.”

        Unlike most other Croatian American families in Los Angeles, Barič's parents did not influence him into the Croatian culture to the same extent, so he did not take part in any language classes or folk dance classes while growing up. He played American sports such as baseball and basketball rather than the world renowned sport of soccer.

        “I wasn't necessarily ashamed of my parents or my culture,” said Barič. “I just wanted to fit in [with Americans].” 

        However, a lot of those feelings subsided in the early nineties, when Barič was in his twenties. While he was still able to develop a love for Croatia through summer visits throughout his childhood, what really reinvigorated his pride for his heritage besides visiting Croatia was the country's first free election in 1990, sparking the Independent Croatia movement that eventually spread all the way to the States. 

        “It was in many ways inspired by the diaspora as much as it was within Croatia itself because the people who had left had always dreamed of an independent Croatia,” said Barič.

        To get more involved and to feed his excitement for the potential of an independent Croatia, Barič started attending some rallies and visiting the Croatian American Club, where the banquet hall was pretty much a humanitarian center at the time of the war filled with clothes, food and other supplies. Once Croatia declared independence a year later, the homeland war officially began. This is when Barič started volunteering and got involved as much as he could as the fight for independence became a reality. 

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Portrait of Jack Barič. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.
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Barič and his family in front of the Church of St. Donatus in Zadar, Croatia. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.

        “It was highly emotional and important to me because I had family and friends back in Croatia who quite literally had their lives in danger in cities that were being bombed regularly,” said Barič. 

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Croatian Youth dance postcard from the early nineties. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.
'Free Croatia' @ the Croatian American Hall, San Pedro. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.

        Barič and other volunteers formed a youth group called Croatian Spring in the second half of 1991, which was dedicated to raising money for humanitarian causes in the homeland and also worked to bring attention to the issue in the media and the overall political sphere.

        Along with other similar groups in places like Toronto, Chicago and Cleveland, these youth groups were a means for young people to get involved as they were well suited to bring the issue to attention in America. From youth dances, rallies and demonstrations to sitting in at the congressman’s office, they brought the issue to light and raised money for humanitarian goods. 

        “[It was] really almost surreal that I would, as a 25-year-old who, the year before was more concerned with just doing keg stands and having fun, was now having one on one meetings with United States senators to illuminate them about what was happening in Croatia,” said Barič.

        Another reason why bringing attention to the issue was so important was because most of the global diplomats from Yugoslavia were Serbian and worked for the Serbian government in Belgrade. In effect, politicians in the West were really only getting valuable political and military information from those working with the Yugoslav government as those were the people they had relationships with. It took a little bit for that to change, but it did. This even prompted the start of the Croatian Foreign Press Bureau, where Croatians took journalists to the front line to see everything for themselves.

         “It happened pretty fast, but it did take a little bit of time for them to kind of start to determine what was really happening and get the real dispute,” said Barič. “Our work as young people was a big part of that.” 

After all of his work in the Croatian Spring, Barič went to Washington D.C. and spent five months communicating with congressmen and their

constituents and was also the acting executive director of the Christian American Association, which involved doing much of what he had already done with Croatian Spring. However, the main objective in going to D.C. was to shed even more light on the issue and to get the United States to officially recognize Croatia as an independent nation, which had both practical implications of just simply having their own nation and implications on how they could set policy for the war. 

        April 7th, 1992 became a significant day when the United States International Committee on Foreign Relations voted twenty to one to formally ask President Clinton and the White House to recognize Croatia as an independent nation. A fellow lobbyist from the Christian American Association brought Barič to that meeting, giving him the pleasure of being there in person during the very moment Croatia was officially recognized by the White House. Wanting to shake someone’s hand and acknowledge Croatia’s independence to someone, the congresspeople went over to Barič. 

        “Because I happened to be the only Croatian person in the room, I was the person they were all coming to and shaking my hand and congratulating me for being recognized,” said the Croatian American. 

        This made that moment all the more special and memorable. 

        “I'm shaking the hands of a dozen or so United States congressman and all the staffers I didn't have nothing to do with,” said Barič. “Although I don't think I did much to deserve it, I'm still really proud of it. It was really emotional for me.”

        Back in LA, there were two clubs: the Croatian American Club and the Yugoslav American Club (now the Dalmatian American Club) during the time of the war. Even though the Slavic population in San Pedro is mostly Croatian, Yugoslavia was still a registered nation. Some San Pedro residents identified as purely Croatian while some called themselves Yugoslavs. During the time of the war, this is kind of how people in San Pedro would classify themselves, making it a divided community. Before the name change, one club had the Yugoslav flag flying while the other had the Croatian flag on flying. Many Croats who immigrated to San Pedro were leaving the communist regime of Yugoslavia and weren't drawn to the Yugoslav Club.

        “When they came here and they saw that there was a Yugoslav Hall, they didn't really relate to that because that's exactly what they were leaving,” said Niko Skoblar, Director of Activities at the Croatian American Club in San Pedro. “So that's how [the] Croatian Hall came about." 

        Even to this day, some Croatians will not associate themselves

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Newspaper clipping released when the U.S. first officially recognized Croatia as a nation. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.
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Newspaper clipping celebrating Croatian independence. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.
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Croatian youth party in the 1990s to get everyone fired up. Barič is pictured in the middle, hat on backwards. Photo courtesy of Jack Barič.

with the Dalmatian American Club for political reasons, whereas members of the Dalmatian Club don’t exactly see the Croatian Club in the same way. The Dalmatian Club can kind of be seen as more of a social club whereas the Croatian American Club revolves around the culture and recent political struggles of Croatian immigrants, said Kathy Creighton, Croatian American and San Pedro resident.

        “I think those who attend and support the Croatian Hall kind of “get it” in a way that those who have always attended the Dalmatian Club just don’t,” said Creighton, whose grandfather was one of the founders of the Yugoslav Club, but was absolutely thrilled when the Croatian Club opened.

Entrance to the Croatian American Hall on 9th Street in San Pedro. Photo courtesy of myself.
Plaque on the building outside Dalmatian American Club snd banquet hall. Photo courtesy of myself.

        The desire for independence dates back to the 70’s, over a decade before Croatia’s first free election. The UDBA, the Yugoslav Secret Service, was suspected of terrorizing Croatians abroad who expressed resistance against the Communist Party during the Cold War. The FBI even had to investigate possible Yugoslav ties to violence against Croatians in the Los Angeles area. These acts of violence included pipe bombings, bombings of homes, murders, and death threats. 

        Having friends and family who are part Serbian made it hard to really talk about what was going on at that time and later during the actual war. For Barič, sometimes it was just better not to talk about it at all and remain civil. He held and still holds true to his belief in his role as a human being to be kind to everyone and to those who serve, even if they are on opposite sides in how they view the conflict. 

        "If I can't make peace, how would there ever be peace? I have good relations with my relatives who are part Serbian. I have good relations with my friends who are Serbian,” said Barič. “I want them to know that I value them and that I don't have this grudge that I'm going to carry with me to my grave, [and] they're equally as generous with how they treat me.”

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'Searching for a Storm' official documentary poster. Courtesy of Jack Barič.

        A little over a decade after the war, Barič directed and released a documentary, ‘Searching for a Storm’, which analyzes the United Nation’s wartime policies and its war crimes court. Ante Gotovina was one of the heads of Operation Storm, the military operation that gained back the area of Croatian territory that the Serbians had occupied. Gotovina is therefore a hero and a liberator to the Croats. Barič’s film aims to discover whether the United Nations had actually contributed to the war crimes and overall Serbian aggression committed during the war after placing an arms embargo on all sides.                

        Another question the film seeks to answer is whether Gotovina, who was convicted by the U.N.’s war crime court of contributing to the war crimes since he ran the operation, was guilty of the war crimes that were committed by Croatians out of anger and revenge after Operation Storm, or if he was just being used as a political scapegoat for the U.N.’s failures during the war. The U.N.’s war policies and charge against Gotovina stems from their position that the Yugoslav War was a civil war, not a war of Serbian aggression against its bordering states, and that all sides were equally guilty. Another question is whether Croatia should really be held on the same level of aggression and guilt as Serbia like the U.N. claims it should. 

        To get a variety for viewpoints, Barič and his crew talked to and interviewed a wide range of people, taking them to of course Croatia, but all over Europe, including to Bosnia, Serbia, Paris, London, and The Hague.

        “As I set out to make this film, I had a strong passion for setting the record straight about the war, how the U.N. conducts its policies, and whether their court had political motivations for charging Gotovina,” said Barič in a statement back when the film was released in 2009. 

        Operation Storm is a piece of the war that Croatians will always remember. It won back the 25% of the land that was taken over by the Serbians and then pretty much concluded the war and officially got Croatia its independence once and for all. Because Operation Storm was made possible with help from President Clinton and his administration, Croatians credit Clinton with ensuring that the operation moved forward. Branimir Kvartuč, co-owner of even got to thank Clinton personally in a photo line. 

        “I started talking to him and I said, thank you for Operation Storm,” said Kvartuč. “[Operation Storm] is not something that an average person in America would know [about], and he did, he knew exactly what the story was.” 

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