By: Miro Petek
The Carinthians smirked a little when, a year before the start of the war for Slovenia, we watched on the Austrian side of Carinthia how the Austrians were setting up Spanish Rider defensive obstacles right next to the border, that is, anti-tank barriers.
It is true that the situation in Slovenia in spring was already boiling, communist dictatorships had also failed in other communist countries across Europe, but we were surprised that Austrians were preparing for what it seemed was going to be doomsday for them. Fear of Serbia dates back to the times of the Carinthian plebiscite, and they obviously expected the end of Yugoslavia to happen soon, but at the same time, they knew that before it reached its end, the communist dragon would strike wildly with its tail.
Holmec, the first victory in the war for Slovenia
As a journalist, I followed the war in Carinthia from the first to the last day, and I was present on the battlefields. On 28 June 1991, a national television cameraman and I watched the battle of the territorials and the Slovenian police against the Yugoslav People’s Army in Holmec, as though we were in a film. The battlefield was as clear as day: the guardhouse was only a few ten meters away from the customs and police building, which burned down during the shooting, and reserve police officers Željko Ernoič and Bojan Štumberger lost their lives. There was creepy shooting and in between a pause for the ambulance to take away the wounded; sometimes the rescuers from Ravne also descended into the crossfire.
The Battle of Holmec also marked the first victory in the war for independence, which carried an important message elsewhere in Slovenia, and at the same time opened the border with Austria, across which France Bučar and others representing Slovenia’s political leadership at the time, travelled for talks. During this time, Holmec became a Slovenian window to the world. Slovenia’s independence was defended on our borders. The later mounted Vič-Holmec affair, alleging that war crimes were carried out in Holmec, which our side allegedly committed against YPA soldiers, arose due to internal political intrigues; at many points it has much in common with the Depala vas in the signatories of the affair and the intentions themselves. Therefore, it should be emphasised again: the war for Slovenia was fought on the principles of a legal and just war and there was not even a faint shadow of a violation of international war or humanitarian law.
Walk of the YPA line from Maribor to Dravograd
In front of Dravograd, a line of ten military armoured vehicles and five tanks got stuck behind a barrier, stopping only in front of Dravograd. All previous attempts from Maribor onwards were too futile, almost reaching the destination, the Vič border crossing. However, before the town of Dravograd, they remained trapped between the Drava river and the impassable slope.
Negotiations that the line which was stopped by barricades at the beginning of Dravograd would continue its way to the Vič border crossing were, of course, unsuccessful as the Slovenian authorities did not allow this and a fierce battle broke out in Dravograd. Even before the main confrontation, a sniper imported by the Yugoslav People’s Army from Belgrade for these purposes shot Vincenc Repnik, a member of the Territorial Defence.
In the hamlet of Robindvor in Dravograd, I found myself in the middle of a huge, several-hour shooting showdown. At the beginning of the loud shooting, when we were looking for refuge, the photographer Tone Stojko came by and quickly took a few shots with his Canon, when we ran away, saying: “For history. I took a photo of two Austrian photo reporters in Brnik, just before they died during the YPA attack.” Academic painter Benjamin Kumprej was also looking for shelter from the shots. He used a small camera to record these historical moments, and I found myself in the basement of a residential house, where the Muc family was already hiding from the grenades. To the owner, who was very cold-blooded, yet at times also very calming with his humorous remarks, I promised that I would return in peace with a bottle of wine, but unfortunately, time has passed so quickly in these three decades that this meeting never took place.
In Dravograd, there was a fear that MiG aircrafts would collapse the Dravograd bridge, but they rocketed the Drava River. In doing so, they also flew over Austrian airspace, but by the time the Austrian air force awoke, the MiG aircrafts were already flying towards their base. Word spread around Dravograd that their compatriot, General Marjan Rožič, who was the commander of the aviation of the Fifth Army Area, did not permit the bridge to collapse. During that time, his daughter lived in Črneče in a small house by the road to Libeliče. Later, he also lived in Črneče for some time and I later had an interview with him.
A Scotsman greeted MiGs with bagpipes
A few days before the war, there was also an interview with an interesting Scotsman, David R. Grant and his family, who stopped in Dravograd on their way around the world with horses and a covered waggon. They had taken their children out of school and their mother also became their teacher. When the war broke out, David R. Grant wanted a weapon to fight for Slovenia. When air raid sirens sounded in Dravograd and Serbian MiGs flew over the city, he picked up bagpipes and played “Amazing Grace” while the planes were roaring. The Grants remained in Slovenia for a few months after the end of the war, and he fell in love with Slovenia and also wrote about it in his books, including the big hit The Seven Year Hitch. I later met Grant again, and the trip around the world also put him in the Guinness Book of Records.
Marko Pogorevc was a commander of a special militia unit at the time, and we raised the Slovenian flag at the Vič border crossing when declaring independence. Above the crossing, YLA soldiers were armed to their teeth. The border sign with the inscription SFRY was guarded night and day by the soldiers there, and in order to avoid an incident we placed the sign Republic of Slovenia a few ten meters lower. Pogorevc’s police officers were trained, well-equipped, and that gave a very good feeling. Many years later, Pogorevc told me that he had brought a television camera and me as a journalist and a photographer to this event, so that the army would think carefully about whether to shoot at a media target as well. Of course they would if there was such an order, as there was no shortage of fools in this guardhouse in Vič either. Regarding the uniformed fools at the border, it should be added that a YPA soldier shot a Sri Lankan citizen who wanted to flee to Austria at the border near Holmec about 14 days before independence.
During the fighting in Carinthia, foreign journalists did not join us, but had reportage cars set up on the other side of the border; one of them even gave the camera to the cameraman of the national team to take pictures of the line that was stuck in front of Dravograd. There was no fee, nor was he signed as the author of the recording.
Collected works of Ivan Cankar shot through
When the fighting was over, I also saw the devastation in Dravograd. In the house on Mariborska street, where YPA soldiers broke in, stole, destroyed, and messed up, the owner showed me a bookshelf and Ivan Cankar’s collected works which were shot through, with sadness and rage. Other books remained intact, while books by Cankar were damaged. With this shot, the officer or soldier, whoever he was, showed the essence of aggression against Slovenia on a symbolic level, as well as his genetic barbarism.
As the MiGs flew over Dravograd, I sat in front of a closed coffee bar in the square in Dravograd, wrote the text by hand, then dictated it over the phone and at the same time watched some famous Dravograd citizens rush towards Austria at the air raid alarm in cars filled to the roof. Quite a few Carinthians escaped to safety at that time, staying in hotels by the Carinthian lakes, in Tinj or with some relatives. Today most of them have a veteran status or some sort of award in the drawer.
Miro Petek is a former investigative journalist and former member of the National Assembly of the Republic of Slovenia.