Plehan = A Beacon for Croatians in Bosnia
By Jerry Blaskovich, M.D.
The opening of the new outpatient clinic at Plehan, a Croatian enclave in Serb occupied Northern Bosnia, has proven to be far more important than simply providing the urgent primary medical care needed by the community. The creation of the clinic required the astounding cooperation of a number of disparate groups, including the Derventa Municipality; the Croatian Franciscans; and the United States Embassy. The actual construction work was managed by the United Methodist Committee on Relief (NGO Unit) Bosnia and Herzegovina Programme, who have been in the vanguard helping returning refugees.
The project was initiated by Clifford Bond, the former U.S. Ambassador who asked the Croatian American Association to take over coordination of the completion of the project. The CAA President and myself worked intensively with the other organizations and brought the clinic to reality. The dictatorially Serb ruled Municipality approved the project, and had to give in and allow a Croatian Franciscan Order to run it--despite the Orthodox Serbs belief that Catholics are anti-Christs. The American ambassador became involved after the Municipality reneged on its commitment to provide construction material. Contrary to the mind-set of the majority in the State Department, Ambassador Bond nonetheless provided the major funding from his discretionary budget. The Croatian American Association gave the remainder.
The clinic has become a beacon of hope for Croatian returnees. The reestablishment of a Croatian presence which was literally and figuratively wiped out during the vicious Serb expansionist effort of the 1990s is testament to their resiliency. The Serbs had thought they had cleansed the Croats from the area forever. But due to political pressure the Serbs reluctantly allowed a trickle of Croats to return to the once productive area the Serbs made into a moonscape.
Plehan’s pre-war parish had 8,000 Roman Catholics, mostly farmers. Croats now number less than 200. Since the area is in Serb held territory, Croatian returnees are denied access to R.S. infrastructure--including medical facilities. Living conditions for Croats now living under the Serbs, are far worse than under the occupation of the Ottoman Turks. So a self sustaining clinic was of prime necessity.
Plehan, which lies in Bosanski Posavina, is not so much a village as it is a settlement that developed around a Franciscan Monastery. For centuries Posavina has had a Croatian presence. Plehan’s reason for being was the fact that its monastery one of the main islands of Croatian culture in Northern Bosnia.
In 1992, after the Serbs devastated Croatia they continued their Belgrade sanctioned ethnic cleansing (a term propagandists prefer to use instead of the real word GENOCIDE) in Bosnia. While Plehan had absolutely no military or strategic value they first targeted and leveled the monastery and church. In their pathological hatred toward Catholics all the churches in Posavina were similarly destroyed. If the destruction did not fully satisfy the Serbs inherent barbaric urges they would then douse what remained with gasoline and set it afire. For the most part, all that was left were ashes.
The first impression of Plehan was that it is not a typical village. Normally village homes are in close proximity. The helter skelter widely scattered hulks of skeletons of former buildings standing like sentinels were deceiving. Closer examination, however, revealed the area was densely settled at one time. Because of weeds, the foundations of the once dense settlement cannot be readily seen. Everything has dissipated and gone with the wind. The bricks, wiring and toilets were plundered by the Serbs during their occupation and used on their own houses.
This particular issue particularly rankles the Croatians. The Serbs did not even allow the rubble to be reused by the families whose ancestors laid the bricks. When driving thru Bosnia, seeing houses being constructed with a variety of different appearing bricks you can bet your enchiladas that it is a Serb using stolen ‘Croatian‘ bricks.
Interestingly the major destruction occurred during the Serb occupation and not during actual combat. Even graveyard chapels were destroyed. Surprisingly, the graves in Plehan were left intact, which is in contrast to other locales. The Serb Orthodox barbarians were notorious to bulldoze graveyards of other faiths out of existence.
The only structures in Plehan currently in good condition are the Monastery and the Clinic. The handful of habitable buildings in Plehan are still in the rebuilding phase. I should put the word monastery in quotes since it is, in fact, a reconverted barn. The original building was totally leveled. When the Serbs blew up the Monastery and Church the intensity of the explosions was so intense that it blew the roofs off of all the buildings in the area, including the neighboring barn. From the barn’s walls the Friars added another story and renovated it into a new Monastery.
The widely dispersed parishes of Bosanska Posavina are manned by Franciscans, while the motherhouse is at Plehan. Its present Abbot (Guardian) Mirko Filipovic has resurrected the monastic concept of utilizing agriculture and animal husbandry to sustain itself. The monks now have large flocks of sheep; kennels of a specific breed of Bosnian sheep dogs; fruit orchards, most particularly plums. A whiskey (Slivovitz) distilled from the latter is renowned, and a major source of income to the monastery.
Despite the destruction of their sacral structures the friars are extremely forgiving and welcome anyone-including Serbs- who show up seeking help. The only words of rancor I heard spoken against the Serbs came from a friar whose uncle was murdered by a Serb neighbor’s son. Some time after hostilities ended the perpetrator’s mother approached the friar and begged him to intervene on her behalf in getting a Croatian pension. His only reply was to tell her that Republika Srbska is now her government. Serbs have a great propensity to take advantage over anyone that shows even a modicum of compassion. It is as if they look upon this as a weakness to be exploited.
The pre-war population of the Bosanski Posavina had 45,000 Croatians, less than 1 per cent have returned. Those Croatians from the area who were not killed have mostly settled in Slavonski Brod in Croatia. There is a great effort by the Friars to encourage resettlement, but it’s an uphill struggle. They, nonetheless, are optimistic.
One positive note is the parish of Zeravac, which is run by Fra Tomas, whom I believe was Guardian when the Serbs destroyed the original Plehan Monastery. Like all the area’s churches, Zeravac’s was also leveled. Out of the ashes Fra Tomas has built a huge parish center with a small outlying chapel. He has instituted youth summer camps on the premises. Last year over 2,000 youths participated. When I made a joke about the co-ed arrangements and the probable goings on, he answered with a wink. I think his ulterior motive is to get the young people involved romantically with a hope of getting them eventually to settle in the area.
The friars display remarkable talents. A multilingual young friar who recently completed his PhD at Strasburg, France has been given a small parish to rehabilitate, and I bet his time will not be wasted.
trying days under the Ottomans the Franciscans were the arbiters for
Croatian mores, and it will be so under the Serbs--even though the
conditions are infinitely worse. The future for Croatian culture in Bosnia
is in the extremely capable hands of these dedicated Friars, despite the
Croatian government’s political animosity toward their brethren in Bosnia.