by Zoran Juraj Sabljak/Hrvatski Vjesnik
Hrvatski Vjesnik recently caught up with Krešimir Malić, a former Melbourne boy whose path in life would see him play a significant role in Croatia’s Homeland War of Independence. Malić was recently acknowledged with one of the highest honours for Foreign Volunteers after being elected the new President of the Association of Foreign Volunteers of the Homeland War.
Thank you for your time and congratulations on your appointment as the President of the Association of Foreign Volunteers of the Homeland War. Can you tell us what this means to you and a little bit of the association’s background?
To be honest it’s a bit overwhelming, the response from both inside and outside of Croatia has been incredible, and after I published my maiden speech the thing that really hit home was that from the Braniteljski viewpoint, our members who had varying ides about the how the Udruga (Association) should be led and what constituted our membership and objectives, came together for the first time in absolute unification, it was like the rest button had been hit and I have to say, that if my presidency needed to achieve anything, it did in that maiden speech and that the actions of our members moving forward will be the be all of the Udruga’s future, I’ve got my hands on the steering wheel, they are the driving force.
Regarding the support back in Australia, well I guess it’s a case of a Footscray boy coming good, I came hear back in the early 1990s to fulfil an objective, a lifelong one based on the beliefs of my family and the Croatian community in the Diaspora, it was mission accomplished, well the first part of the battle, the second was making it my home and raising a family, I think I’ve done well there also, now it’s a now a battle to preserve the memory of not only our times in battle 30 years ago, and the recognition our boys and this band of brothers, but to make sure that the rights and privileges we all deserve are fought for.
The Udruga started through Gaston networking with veterans, for instance, Rod was contacted, and Mario Tadic was then contacted through him, followed by Simon Hutt and so the word spread.
Initially there was a group of around ten who established the core of what the Udruga is today, and from there a list started to be compiled of foreign volunteers that were known of.
Just before a Vukovar commemoration some years ago in Vinkovci, some 20 veterans (from memory) all became signatories on the initial application to register the Udruga which was being compiled and initiated by Mario Tadic.
There had been a previous attempt to do it, but it didn’t succeed until Mario took ownership of it and made it his goal. At that Vinkovci assembly, I think there were an Irishman, a Chilean, two Dutchman, seven Englishman, and of course not to be outdone by the English, seven Frenchmen and one boy from down under.
From that point we had the genesis of what is today the USDDR.
We’ve known each other for nearly 40 years. You were an old Melbourne boy and I have fond memories of our days when we were growing up together and for a while there we were members of “Slatki san” (now Major minor). Can you give us a little bit of perspective as to how those days shaped the person you are today and what or who influenced you the most?
Like I mentioned before, our generation, and the ones of our generation who were a few years older like my brother Marko, who was a mentor to me along with my father, were the product of a lifelong upbringing in every sense of Croatianhood, tradition, history and beliefs, I think if you ask anyone what are the 3 oldest memories they have it will be #1 A significant life event, followed by #2 Zabave and #3 Demo’s in front of some fenced off building with a star emblazed flag, it’s where we got our education about who we are and probably our “riječnik” of Croatian swear words as a consequence.
Slatki san, well that was being up front and stage centre, like I said, I still remember kids at dances sitting along the stage when Croatian bands performed, and I think all of us wanted to play a guitar, the drums or sing, we knew all the words, so why not, and you and I ended up living that dream.
I along with many others from Australia ended up living another dream, freeing the homeland, and I know what the young Australians who ended up in Gallipoli and on the French front in WW1 must have felt like, we thought this will be a walk through, over in months, it went on for 5 years, and people like Ante Malić almost made it, but had the bad luck to be stricken down in combat just as we saw the finish line in sight.
He has always stayed in my memories, I live with him in them every day, right now, just thinking about him and all the other boys who made it, or didn’t, makes me swell up, I don’t think I will ever run out of tears for them, and I’ve shed a lot over the years.
Can you tell us (as much as you can or are willing) about your military service ? Were there moments when you thought that you were about to make the ultimate sacrifice as many of our young men and women did?
My ratni put spanned some four years, but, I think it had to be in the heart of ancestral Croatia, Bosnia, and believe me there’s no colder place on earth than Kupres, Tomislavigrad, Livno.
Kupres, that was our Stalingrad, and I take my hat off to the 369th 50 years earlier, whether people like it or not, we were soldiers, average men and women first and foremost, like the boys of the 369th, we fought for the freedom of our homeland, and in Kupres under Glasnović who was eventually almost mortally wounded in Zloselo, we gave it everything we had, that was the moment we became men with some the most fiercest fighting. And under Glasnović, just like the other foreigners that served under him, as much as I was of Croatian descent, I was nevertheless a foreigner also in the lands of my grandfathers.
Do you know why they named it Zloselo? Because this is where many of the Ottomans ended up buried centuries earlier, they gave it that name, and just as foreigners attacked it them, and foreigners wanted to take it again, this time it was a case of foreigners and Croats fighting side by side to repel them, it was a proud moment, I was both Australian and Croatian in every sense.
In regard to your role as the President of the Association of Foreign Volunteers of the Homeland War what do you see as tour biggest and most important priority?
The Udruga represents foreigners who today in many cases have made Croatia their home, and they earned it, it’s simple as that, and just like Croatian born branitelji, they too have to fight to be recognised and receive benefits that would be considered basic in Australia under the ministry of veteran’s affairs.
In Croatia however it’s a different story, we are scattered and fragmented as associations, all doing our own thing, ultimately to preserve what was, what is and what must be in the future, we need to come together as the Australian diggers did after world wars 1 and 2, they couldn’t depend on the British empire, they were part of a young nation that hadn’t seen any significant participation in a war previously, the similarities between Croatia and Australia of almost a century ago are very parallel. We need to replicate what the diggers did, not just take handouts, hand over fist, but start thinking about a national body that will either campaign the governments of today or tomorrow, or role up their sleeves and do it for themselves for their brothers and sisters.
I don’t want this Udruga to be a burial procession of mourners laying wreaths at commemorations, I want it to work, affiliate and campaign together with others for change and progress, we need to set up facilities and support for our veterans, their spouses and their families, health care, PTSD clinics, and give veterans a chance to live and rejoice in the country they helped free, not leave them to watch the seconds, minutes, hours days and years tick away as they spiral due to ill health ultimately silently passing, and in a lot of cases, far to many cases, at their own hands.
It’s very sad and disappointing that instead staying on and enjoying the freedoms they fought for many of those who served as foreign volunteers have since left Croatia and returned to the country where they lived in emigration. Why do you think that has happened?
Honestly, I think that in a lot of cases, just as our own born experienced, it was a case of “The parties over, you can all go now” It’s not the best analogy but it true, our authorities and government as much as they had a country to rebuild, and a democracy to create from scratch, didn’t have the long term vision with how they would manage the veterans and what needed to be put I place. In some respects, their mission after the last gun shot is still ongoing and a lot of mistakes have been made.
We constantly try to bring our foreign brothers back into the fold and urge and financially assist them to make the pilgrimage back on specific occasions so they feel inclusive and hopefully show them something that should be taken for granted and fulfilled by the Croatian ministries, not Udruge.
Our foreign veterans, and their families, are still feeling the anguish they felt on the front-line years later, it’s a situation that has to change.
How much support have the foreign volunteers received from the Croatian Government? Could they and should they do more?
I think I’ve summed it up in my last two responses, but to be specific, they need to do things smarter, the resources they throw at the veterans situation, be they foreigners of our own domestic troops, isn’t a case of not being enough, actually in dollar terms it’s a lot, but it’s how it used, distributed and allocated. If we want any combatant of the homeland war to have a chance, it has to be targeted at specific issues that assist our people in making a difference in their lives and the people around them, once you achieve that, it will take on a momentum of its own. As the old saying goes, “If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, if you teach a man to fish you will feed him for a lifetime”
In your first statement as president you said, “Be it HV, HVO, HOS, each abbreviation had one commonality, H for Hrvatska”, why is that such a hard concept for the current and previous Croatian governments to understand and more importantly acknowledge?
I think they did, and there was a time when we heard the words Za Dom Spremni openly used and adored by everyone, the problem is there are two camps now, the nationalists who remember how we were one, how we had a common objective, how we threw off the mantle of communist Yugoslavia and embraced who we are, past present and future, now there are two camps, the old guard who thought for this country and its freedoms, and those that have either crept out of the shadows of the war and perpetuating a philosophy we fought to eradicate, or the EU pacifists who want to be part of a club rather than a family of brotherhood.
Croatia is at the crossroads, there are good people in our ministries, and in some seats of our government, but they can only do so much while the shadow dwellers of yesterday are getting stronger and out to dismantle our recent and not so recent history in an effort to minimise us as just numbers in a greater European household.
It’s not what we fought for, be it a Croatian born or foreign born branitelj, and it’s up to us and the people to set this story straight again before its too late.
So to me, it’s the letter H that matters, everything after that is inconsequential, we were, are and will be Hrvati, that’s the common denominator, the binding blood between us all, and some of our foreigners have become Hrvati, citizens, for the ones that went home to their countries, H should symbolize H for hero’s because every last one of them are.
Many of us know and have friends who served as foreign volunteers of the homeland war, yet we rarely if ever see them acknowledged or celebrated in a manner that befits their service and contribution. In fact, many shy away from the limelight as is not unusual for those who have experienced and witnessed conflict. Do you think there is any merit in establishing branches of the Association of Foreign Volunteers of the Homeland War in countries like Australia, Canada, USA, Germany etc where the volunteers could be properly acknowledged and honoured especially on occasions such as “Oluja” anniversaries?
A few years ago, Darko Oreč, a HOS’ovac during the homeland war, and John Ovčarić, a friend of my brother and I since childhood and all the way through our teen years, who did a lot behind the scenes back home in Australia at the time, set about recognising our boys from down under when General Glasnović visited Australia and handed out patches as recognition, I have one as others here from back home have also, it’s an honour to wear it, so there is a basis for doing what you stated, but to do it we need the Croatian Diaspora to sit up and start recognising our boys in their own countries, then put pressure on the Croatian zajednice in Australia, and elected officials here, to recognise them and all the many others.
The imbalance in how the homeland treats its own is an illness our people in the diaspora now suffer also, Australian Croatians need to forget about creating political franchises and branches of political parties here, they need to concentrate on preserving what is Croatian, and what they gave to the creation of Croatia, and that means that on occasions like the anniversary of Oluja, there needs to be a celebration of it and the men and women among you who made it a reality. Darko Oreč arranged for the first representation of Croatian Australian troops to march in the Anzac Day procession in Sydney a few years ago with support from the Ministarstvo hrvatskih branitelja Republike Hrvatske here in Croatia, who has ever spoken to him about that event where a handful marched and were pulled up by Chetniks marches and how Darko and the boys stood their ground? You have heroes among you also, celebrate them as much as you do the rest of us.
Thank you for your time do you have any final message for your childhood friends and Croatian community, and can we expect to see you in Australia any time soon?
I still call Australia home, just like in the song, but I’m waiting here and trying to make things right so that one day you might all come home also, the world’s shrunk, and will keep shrinking, and yes, I hope to be back visiting you all very, very soon again.