Bukovica and Ravni Kotari
Of all the parts of Croatia that came under Yugoslav Army and Chetnik occupation in
1991, the area of Bukovica and Ravni Kotari (the immediate hinterland of Zadar) is one of
the most ethnically mixed mosaics of nationalities. Unlike the crisis stricken areas of
Eastern Slavonia and Baranja, which are characterized by striking Croatian majorities, and
the occupied zones of Banija, eastern Lika, and the Knin district, which are distinctly
inhabited by Serb majorities, the area of Bukovica and Ravni Kotari is indivisible.
Included in this territory are the districts of Benkovac and Obrovac and parts of the
Sibenik, Biograd and Zadar districts along the Adriatic Sea.
Croats form a great majority within the sectors close to the Adriatic coast, like in
Ravni Kotari, while deeper inland in Bukovica, Serbs comprise a large percentage of the
population. However, along the immediate coastline and on the outlying islands, the Serbs
comprise a very small minority. In 1991, the Serbs constituted 10.3 % of the population of
the Zadar district, 3.9 % of the Biograd district and 10.6 % of the Sibenik district.
Serbs comprise 65 % of the population in the sparsely inhabited district of Obrovac, while
the neighbouring district of Benkovac has a characteristic ethnic mixture (56.9 % Serbs
and 40.6 % Croats).
In the not too distant past, the number of Croats in relation to Serbs in the Benkovac
and Obrovac districts was more than well- balanced. In 1910, for example, Croats in the
Benkovac district (as per its current borders) constituted 46.9 %, compared with the
Serbs' 54.5 %. The Serbs had never comprised more than 55 % of the area's population.
In the district of Obrovac, however, until 1971, the proportion of Croats was above 35
%. In 1910, Croatians represented 36.8 % and during 1971, they comprised 38.5 %. The
results of the census of 1910 and of 1971 show Serbs comprising 62.9 % and 60%
respectively. In the past, the district headquarters of Bukovica and Obrovac were composed
of Croatian majorities. Pieced together, this information indeed refutes Serbian
assertions that they were an endangered and decaying race in Croatia.
The district headquarters of Benkovac, during the 1991 census, was comprised of 19.8 %
Croats out of the population of 3,776. Out of 52 other settlements in the district, 25 had
Croatian majorities while the Serbs comprised majorities in 27.
Greater Serbian architects gave prominence to Ravni Kotari, both in maximal and modest
terms, because it is via Ravni Kotari that the so-called Serbian krajina would reach the
Adriatic Sea. In July 1991, Serbian opposition leader Vuk Draskovic revealed a definite
plan with which the Knin aggressors could gradually expand the territory under their
control by utilizing the support of settlements with sizeable Serbian majorities (between
Zadar and Sibenik) and ultimately gain access to the sea. In geographic terms, only two
settlements with Serbian majorities had access to the sea: Donji Karin up to the Karinsko
Sea, and Gracac (in the Skradin area), which lies beside Proljansko Lake - a submerged
section of territory at the mouth of the Krka River. Both sea exits, however, are
insignificant and could be blocked with relative ease.
In view of such maritime limitations in the Sibenik area, Serbian planners knew that
they would need to forcibly secure a gateway to the sea through Ravni Kotari. The fact
that all settlements along the sea belt are exclusively inhabited by Croats was not a
deterrent to greater Serbian planners. Thus, in order for a greater Serbian
"krajina" to gain access to the sea, the first stage of any offensive in the
Bukovica and Ravni Kotari areas would need to involve the "ethnic cleansing" of
Krusevo village (pop: 1,674, 93.0 % Croats) in the Obrovac district was the first place
to be "cleansed". Because Krusevo is situated close to Serbian settlements and
lies directly on the road between Obrovac and Benkovac, it was strategically important to
the aggressor. In addition, its hilly terrain makes it militarily suitable for controlling
the Karin Sea and Obrovac district headquarters. Polaca village (pop: 1,467, 88.1 %
Croats), located between the towns of Benkovac and Biograd, was attacked shortly after
Krusevo. By that time, the village of Lisane Ostrovicke (pop: 892, 99.1 % Croats) had
already been encircled, owning to its strategic location on an important communication
route. The encirclement and the ultimate ethnic cleansing of Lisane Ostrovicke had the aim
of freeing the road and railway from Benkovac via Kistane to Knin - the main krajina
Bribirske Mostine, one of the Serbian villages encircling Lisane Ostrovicke, was one of
the first launching pads of the Serbian aggression in Croatia. Even during the communist
rule in Croatia, the local Serbs in Bribirske mostine protested against an archaeological
excavation of early-Croatian monuments in the village, claiming that the dig would
"desecrate" a local Serbian orthodox graveyard. The fact is, the monument at the
church of St. Spas dates from the 9th century and the orthodox graveyard was put there
approximately two hundred years ago.
With the escalation of the war in Croatia, further encirclement by the Yugo-Chetnik
army of non-Serb settlements occurred, becoming fully manifest in late July, 1991. This is
especially true for villages with Croatian majorities located north of Bukovica, such as:
Medvidja (pop: 688, 57.4 % Croats); Bruske (pop: 373, 89.5 % Croats), Rodaljice (pop: 162,
100 % Croats); Korlat (pop: 941, 55 % Croats) and a group of villages south of Benkovac
which encompasses Sopot (pop: 511, 72,2 % Croats) and Lisicic (pop: 499, 96.0 % Croats).
In the autumn of 1991, Serbian irregulars intensified their brutal and savage attacks
on the area. When their aggression on the above- named settlements was nearly complete,
the Chetniks, with the help of the JNA, set out to attack other Croatian populated areas.
Killings, house-burnings and bloody assaults in the villages of Skabrnja (pop: 1,953, 97.6
%) and Nadin (pop: 666, 97.6 % Croats) astounded both Croatia and the world. The first
massacres in Skabrnja and Nadin took place between November 20 and 25, 1991. During that
time, 35 Croats were summarily executed. This was, however, only the beginning of the
tragic fate which would befall Skabrnja. The Croats who remained there were subjected to
torture and murder. The Yugoslav Army attempted to cover up the committed atrocities by
prohibiting the proposed EC observers access to the area. However, survivors who managed
to escape the Serbo-Chetnik ordeal later gave testimonies against these war crimes.
A similar scenario took place in the Sibenik district and Skradin borough, on the
Adriatic coast, where the first manifestations of Serbian atrocities against Croats living
in villages surrounded by Serbian settlements appeared in Icevo (pop: 168, 57.7 % Croats)
and Rupe (pop: 976, 97.2 % Croats). The same fate was, thereafter, experienced by other
adjoining settlements comprised of absolute Croatian majorities, such as Dubravica (pop:
822, 99.1 % Croats), Krkovica (pop: 261, 93.5 % Croats) and Ciste Velike (pop: 200, 70 %
Croats). The majority of the population was forced to flee their homes, and the
terrorists, after occupying each village, held the remainder (usually the elderly)
hostage. After some time, the hostages were either summarily executed or expelled to
Croatian controlled areas. It is estimated that by spring 1992, well over 20,000 innocent
Croats from Bukovica and Ravni Kotari suffered the same miserable fate.