Franjo Tudjman In His Atomic Bunker

Globus, Zagreb – 15-11-1991

At the darkest period in the Serbo-Croatian war in late 1991, while Zagreb itself faced the prospect of air and rocket attacks, President Tudjman made increasing use of his atomic shelter deep beneath Tito's former presidential palace, Vila Zagorje. Christopher Long had to interview the Croat president, so they met 15 metres underground...

This is an extract from a longer article.

By Christopher Long

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As everyone knows, Zagreb was once the last out-post of Europe before travellers on the exotic Orient Express tipped the hall-porters of the Esplanade Hotel and re-joined their train and headed south-east for the mysteries and adventure of Belgrade, Sofia and Istanbul.

Last Thursday night [07-11-1991] there was no smell of steam and English leather luggage around the Esplanade Hotel, no whiff of French scent, no orchestra in the hall-way, no glittering lights, no glamour.

But there was indeed excitement in the south-east. As the arms-dealers did business in the hotel, outside the sirens wailed, the traffic stopped, the lights went out all over town and people took cover while 200 members of the JNA's elite forces at the Marshall Tito Barracks reminded the citizens of Zagreb that, today at least, they are a million kilometres from Europe and that the line between Zagreb and Belgrade is full of very unattractive mysteries and adventure.

All day I had been trying to arrange an interview with President Franjo Tudjman and every time I had been asked to call again in 20 minutes. At around 8.00 pm the Vila Zagorje rang asking me to go there as quickly as possible. As I put down the phone the sirens started. Having been threatened with mines, mortar attacks and drowning by the JNA the week before, this seemed to be unnecessarily cruel timing by the boys near the airport.

There were no taxis, no cars and no-one who could get me to Vila Zagorje 'as fast as possible'.The porters and hotel staff could offer no help. It was strange to feel myself a prisoner trapped within the one-metre circumference of the light of my pocket-torch.

But what was that large, comfortable limousine parked in the pitch darkness of the hotel ramp with a driver sitting at the wheel?

It was a government minister's car, waiting outside for the minister to finish his dinner inside.

And who was the minister?

Old habits die hard in Zagreb. The name Josipa Boljkovac, the former Interior Minister, still has a strange and alarming effect on the ordinary people of Croatia. As one of the most mysterious, anonymous and powerful of men, the hotel staff could hardly bring themselves to agree that Mr Boljkovac was indeed dining in the hotel at a private party with American 'businessmen' – arms dealers, as it later emerged.

I had never heard of him.

"Surely he will lend me his car to visit the President?" I asked the ever-helpful receptionists.

They went white and mumbled something I couldn't understand.

As I approached Mr Boljkovac's table, two tall, determined and polite American body-guards stepped in front of me.

Clearly this was indeed a very, very private dinner party. But to the eternal credit of Mr Boljkovac, the excellent manager of the The Esplanade and a courageous chauffeur, I soon found myself driving through the black empty streets of Zagreb.

Spiralling inflation was one of the immediate effects of the outbreak of war in Slovenia and Croatia in the summer and autumn of 1991. This 10 Dinar bank note has been 'over-stamped' to read 10,000 Dinars. Under old Yugoslav law it was a serious offence for ordinary civilians to trade in foreign currencies. Nevertheless, everyone was desperately converting increasingly valueless dinars into German deutschmarks or US dollars. The deutschmark soon became the staple currency throughout the old republic.

A year later, besieged towns such as Mostar, in Bosnia-Hercegovina, were reduced to printing their own siege currency – again in deutschmarks – each note individually hand-stamped.

Away to the south-east the JNA were producing beautiful arcs of anti-aircraft tracer fire – pretty streams of bullets which, we heard later, succeeded in shooting a woman through her stomach and a child through its neck.

For a few seconds at a time my driver flashed his lights to locate the trams which had stopped anywhere and everywhere in the middle of the road. The Zagreb which had produced the flashing lights and heavy 1960s rock music at the Saloon Club the night before was now reduced to the nervous flashes of headlights and torches, the population now underground and behind sandbags.

An ambulance screamed past in front of us – the only vehicle we saw as we headed out into the northern suburbs.

At the gates of Vila Zagorje nervous guards quickly let us through and on up the long, winding drive to the black silhouette of Tito's palatial residence. Around the cavernous entrance doors stood more of the President's personal guards wary and suspicious – ready, it seemed, for anything except a lone British journalist. They seemed amazed to be receiving visitors.

I emptied my pockets, handed over my press card, my recording equipment and everything I possessed. It all went through the security machines. Then it was my turn. I waited for an accusing alarm signal to reveal my hidden weapons and bombs. Would I hear the bang when they shot me, I wondered. There was no alarm signal and I didn't hear a shot. I was relieved and surprised to find that I had not brought any hidden weapons or bombs with me.

"You're going down to the shelter," someone told me. "It's 15 metres deep and it's safe against atomic attacks."

I didn't know whether to feel pleased about this or not, but it did occur to me to wonder whether anybody had ever interviewed a president in his atomic shelter.

As we walked down more and more concrete stairs, someone told me we were surrounded by several metres of concrete and water.

At the bottom I had the feeling we were in a submarine. Every few yards along the corridors were double steel doors and then open showers and wash-rooms with no curtains, rooms with bunk-beds and then turnings which clearly led to communications and conference rooms.

If, like Alice in Wonderland, I had fallen into a rabbit hole and found myself in a world of distorted images, then the sight of butlers, cooks and valets all around me seemed like a scene from Monty Python. What on earth were we all doing here? In its own peculiar way it was logical. The world of President Tudjman had simply fallen 15 metres into a concrete underworld.

"Mr Long? How do you do? My name is Zdravka. It's very nice to meet you. I'm sorry we have to meet like this down here."

It was a charming welcome. Perhaps I was not in Zagreb but in a delightful drawing-room in London.

"If you don't mind, perhaps you could wait a few minutes here and then the President will see you."

Of course, I thought. And in a moment the White Rabbit or the Queen of Hearts will arrive.

But it wasn't the Queen of Hearts. It was Vesna, the President's press secretary.

We walked down more winding corridors until we reached a door into a room not much bigger than my bathroom. There, sitting on a simple, military-style, iron bed, with two or three simple wooden chairs, a table, a television, a telephone and a wardrobe, sat an elderly man. He looked exhausted. I already knew that Franjo Tudjman suffers badly from back pain, but I was nevertheless surprised to see the stress of events, as well as his back, written so plainly on his face.

After years of interviewing I have come to trust my own judgment, my first impressions and my instincts. I liked Franjo Tudjman. I cannot say that I like the world he comes from. I cannot say I like the colour or texture of his politics. Fortunately I don't have to judge his role in, or responsibility for, the current state of the war in Serbo-Croatia. And I'm glad that I have not voted for, and will not have to choose in future, Franjo Tudjman as the man to lead Croatia into the C21st and a place in Europe.

But, that said, I liked the man. There was a genuine warmth and one cannot help having a certain respect for anyone burdened with responsibility for the lives and fortunes of so many in such desperate circumstances.

"What do you know about Croatia?" he asked me.

I think I convinced him that I knew enough about his country to justify a conversation with a man who was clearly very exhausted.

After a long and wide-ranging conversation, I thought I would make it easy for him:

"As we are sitting here, fifteen metres under ground, what would you say to the people of London who remember the Blitz of 1940?"

Amazingly, the president ignored his translator, moved closer to my microphone, and appealed directly, in English, to the people of London:

"Dear English, force your government to recognise Croatia – to stop the war in Croatia."

That seemed clear and simple, even if his use of the word 'force' rather than 'persuade' was more of a Balkan preoccupation than the preferred method of effecting change in a new-born or aspiring 'democracy'.

This is an extract from a longer article. Parts of the taped interview were used two days later, on 09-11-1991, in an item for a BBC Radio 4 'Today' news programme.

Filed to BBC Radio News

and The London Evening Standard on the night of 07-11-1991:

Croatia's President Franjo Tudjman appealed to Londoners for help from his bunker in Zagreb as the country was attacked by fighter jets.

He made his appeal in halting English, ignoring his interpreter, saying: "Dear English, dear London, force your government to recognise Croatia – and to stop the war in Croatia".

The President, speaking last night from the 45ft deep atomic shelter beneath former President Tito's state residence, added: "Croatia is now in the same situation as London in 1940".

He said that Zagreb and the whole of Croatia was under attack by what was once the Yugoslav People's Army. "But it doesn't now belong to Yugoslavia or its people," he added. Outside, Zagreb's population was torn from its sleep by howling air-raid sirens, the pounding of anti-aircraft guns and explosions.

The Serbian-controlled Yugoslav air force launched air raids during the night on several Zagreb suburbs.

Sixteen people were reported killed and many injured in the raids on Zagreb, Karlovac, Osijek and other Croatian towns and villages.

Fighting today was reported to be the fiercest since the Yugoslav conflict erupted into violence in Croatia in August.

Croatian National Guard spokesman Davor Domazet said 100 federal jets flew missions against targets from Croatia's Adriatic coast to its eastern border with Serbia.

"This is the biggest single air attack on Croatia," he said.

EC observers reported that an Italian working as a driver for their mission was hurt in a raid on Bizovac during which their hotel was blasted.

The raids came as European Community foreign ministers met in Rome to decide whether to hit Serbia with sanctions.

For the past 24 hours Serbian politicians have been issuing statements saying that they will not capitulate to any pressure until "all those who want to remain in Yugoslavia have the right to do so".

During the night another large group of Serbians living outside Serbia, in Bosnia-Hercegovina, announced the formation of their own parliament.

The final item in this report, regarding the formation of a Serbian parliament in Bosnia-Hercegovina, was of immense significance, being the first formal indication that war might spread into Bosnia-Hercegovina. It appeared to be almost an irrelevance compared with so much else that was happening at the time and it has to be said that its implications were not immediately appreciated by the author when he reported it. Nevertheless, this soon convinced him that a far worse conflict was on its way – a view discounted by the BBC's Foreign News desk. Only ITN's Channel 4 News in London was prepared to take the author's prediction seriously, agreeing to devote a long item to this on 17-12-1991.

© (1991) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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