We asked Mr. Palaich about his activities during the 1991-1995 war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as about an indictment against him in the USA, that stemmed from his efforts to help Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina to defend themselves against Serbian aggression. Those who know Mike, are well aware of his hesitation to talk about himself. But since so many have already forgotten about what happened in a not so distant past, and for the sake of new generations, he agreed to answer to a few questions, so that we may all remember how much liberty and independence meant, not only to Croatians in the homeland but to those around the world as well.
An American who helped Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina defend themselves from aggression
The unbelievable story of a Croatian hero: Michael Palaich about his fight for an independent Croatia
In this part of the interview we asked Mr. Palaich about his activities during the 1991-1995 war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as about an indictment against him in the USA, that stemmed from his efforts to help Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina to defend themselves against Serbian aggression. Those who know Mike, are well aware of his hesitation to talk about himself. But since so many have already forgotten about what happened in a not so distant past, and for the sake of new generations, he agreed to answer to a few questions, so that we may all remember how much liberty and independence meant, not only to Croatians in the homeland but to those around the world as well.
Mike, your contributions to the independence of Croatia are greatly appreciated and thank you for the interview.
HRsvijet: You are probably best known for your documentary “Bleiburška Tragedija” and somewhat for your activity in the Croatian liberation movement beginning in 1978. People, however, know nothing about your activities in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war of independence. Would you be willing to share some of your experiences and activities between 1991 and 1996?
When I was first approached with the idea of doing an interview on my activity during the war, I was reluctant to speak about these things for two reasons. First, I have spent a lifetime of maintaining discipline when it comes to speaking about things that I have been involved in. I have never seen positive things come from talking too much. In fact, I have seen many good men come to terrible ends because they did not have the discipline to simply keep their mouths shut when they should have. Second, and most important, there are many men and women who sacrificed much more than I did for Croatian independence and I do not want to give the mistaken impression that I am being boastful. Thousands paid for Croatia’s independence with their very lives, or the lives of their sons, or the lives of their daughters, or their fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters.
I hope you will understand if I am careful when speaking of my past activities during the war, because they could still cause me problems, even after all these years. However, I think that it may be helpful to offer people an insight into aspects of Croatian independence that they are unfamiliar with.
HRsvijet: Can you briefly summarize some of the things you were involved in during the war?
When the war against Croatia was raging in October 1991, a small group of friends and I felt compelled to go and do what we could to help Croatia. My trip got off to a bad start when German police arrested me at the Frankfurt airport on October 21, 1991. After spending several hours in jail, the Germans charged me with illegally importing weapons, ammunition, and night-vision equipment.
To this day I have not admitted to these charges. They released me on bond after a short time and I thanked them for treating me so professionally. They responded by saying, “Yes, we are professional, that is how we know why you came here and where you are going.”
I worked from October 1991 till 1993, with the former Ministry of Information – later called Croatian Information Center. The Ministry gave Croatian press credentials to me, but I travelled through Croatia, and later Bosnia-Herzegovina, as an American journalist. Nobody was interested in reading the faint letters on the bottom of the identification card that read, “Ministry of Information.” It was in that capacity that I tried to influence the Western journalists regarding the war of independence. Interviews were also arranged using Croatian Press Credentials with U.S. State Department officials in Washington, D.C. Later, and despite the Serbian two-year siege of Sarajevo, I was able to fly into and out of Sarajevo using United Nations Press credentials aboard C-130 airplanes.
C-130 Transport, Sarajevo 1993; George Kenney, Former Chief of Yugoslav Desk, U.S. State Dept. 1993
Then, in 1996, long after fighting in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina had ended, the United States government indicted me.
HRsvijet: You said you worked with the Ministry of Information in Croatia between from 1991-1993. What exactly did you do?
There were many different options at that time available to me. Since I had degrees in psychology and political science and years of experience in the Diaspora, I decided that the best way to use my talents would be to work with the Ministry of Information and later the Croatian Information Center as a kind of journalist. I knew Ante Beljo, who had major positions in these organizations, for a few years, by this time. But, more importantly, he knew my circle of friends in the Diaspora and that they were committed to Croatia’s freedom. He arranged for me to acquire the press credentials and I paid visits to his office on many occasions explaining my ideas.
I am not sure if he was too occupied, simply did not want to know what I was doing for reasons of plausible denial, or that he trusted me, but I eventually felt free to just follow my instincts and act independently. I found that I could use my American accent and the press credentials that I was issued as an advantage to mingle with Western journalists. Wherever journalists could be found, I went too. Sometimes I would simply hover around the Foreign Press Bureaus in Zagreb, or Split talking to journalists as they arrived in Croatia. Journalists always had to stop at the Press Bureau to obtain their press credentials, before they could operate in Croatia as journalists. When it was possible, I would be there to intercept them. Sometimes I would travel with them as they covered various fronts. Many evenings were simply spent in bars talking with them about the war. It was in this capacity during the war that I also travelled from Zagreb to places like, Karlovac, Turanj, Sisak, Split, Livno, Tomislav Grad, Osijek, Orašje and later Sarajevo.
I assumed the role of tutor with the journalists. The journalists were strangers in a new country that was at war. They did not know the terrain, the language, or the culture and, therefore, they were vulnerable. Because they were so vulnerable in these first few days of their arrival, they would be most open to suggestions from a helpful fellow journalist offering a different way to view the war that was being waged against Croatia. I knew that if I could affect the way they viewed the war, for example, I could influence the way they wrote about the war and indirectly influence the public through the articles that they wrote. HRsvijet: Can you give examples of the arguments you might make with the journalist you came into contact with?
The journalists always seemed to come to Croatia with preconceived notions in spite of their profound ignorance regarding Croatia. They would speak with great authority about age-old-ethnic conflicts, ethnic hatreds, civil war, religious hatreds and even tribalism in the “former Yugoslavia.”
If the journalist was from Great Britain I might respond to such pronouncements by asking, “Why is it that the English military can go thirteen thousand kilometers to the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and invade a small island off the coast of Argentina in the name of “insuring democracy” but, the Croatian people are not considered civilized enough to fight for higher ideals like freedom and self-determination within the historical borders of their own nation-state?”
If the journalist was from America I might ask, “Why can Americans send military troops around the world to fight against the spread of communism for decades, but you can not comprehend that Croats have the right to fight against communism within their own borders and demand freedom and democracy for themselves?” Then I would ask, “Is it really only conceivable to you that Croats would risk everything they have – including their lives – to satisfy some primitive emotion like ethnic hatred and that they are too uncivilized to demand and fight for ideals and concepts as advanced as freedom, democracy and self-determination?” I knew my arguments were successful when I would hear the same journalists I tutored repeat my comments when discussing the war with other journalists the next day.
In many cases journalists also shared a deadly combination of arrogance and ignorance. One amusing story concerns a group of Japanese journalists who were going to the front in their rental car after taping, in large letters, the initials TV to the side of their car despite my advice not to. They wanted to advertise they were members of the press, hoping that the Serbs would not shoot at a car indentified as carrying members of the press. Of course, just the opposite was true. Journalists were major targets of the Serbs. I saw them when they returned from the front that same evening. Their car was full of bullet holes and broken windows and they were removing the tape from the side of their car that identified them as journalists. They learned that day that the Serbs did not like journalists who were documenting their war crimes. Those particular journalists were always open to my advice after that incident.
In addition to changing the perception of journalists, I also used my press credentials to gain access to United Nations representatives in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and later in the U.N. Headquarters in New York. On one occasion I travelled to Washington D.C. to interview George Kenney. Kenney was the Chief of the Yugoslav Desk at the U.S. State Department. He resigned in 1993, in protest over U.S. policy toward Bosnia-Herzegovina. Regardless of whether they were journalists, U.N. officials, or State Department officials my goal was always the same: influence and change their perspective toward Croatia and later Bosnia.
HRsvijet: How did you become a Registered Foreign Agent for the Ministry of Defense?
As everyone knows, the Serbs and JNA confiscated all the military equipment of the “former-Yugoslavia” – leaving Croatia with nothing to defend itself. In addition, there was an international arms embargo against all of the “former-Yugoslavia.” By subjecting Croatia to an arms embargo, the international community was depriving Croats of their God-given right to defend themselves against a brutal aggressor with all the weapons of a modern army. One could make the argument that genocide was the unintended consequence of the international community’s arms embargo. My partners and I explained our concept directly to Minister of Defense, Gojko Šušak, during a meeting with him in November 1993. He authorized us to act on behalf of the Ministry of Defense for the Republic of Croatia. Minister Šušak directed us to assist the Ministry of Defense in finding whatever was needed for the war effort so that the Croatian people could defend themselves against the genocide being perpetrated against them.
I am proud to say that we did provide some of the material that was used during Operation Oluja in May 1995.
Karlovac 1991. / Petrinja, Oluja 1995.
HRsvijet: You mentioned that you also went to Sarajevo as a journalist. How did you get in and out of Sarajevo when it was under siege by the JNA?
I created my own press agency called Pan National News Agency with headquarters listed in Argentina, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada and the U.S. Amazingly, creating a press agency was as easy as registering a company in the county I lived, printing business cards, letterhead, identification cards and badges. Once the agency was established, I sought and was granted press accreditation from the United Nations. With U.N. press credentials I was authorized to fly into Sarajevo aboard C-130 planes from Split. The first time I entered Sarajevo in February of 1993, the airport was completely controlled by Serb forces, which added another element of anxiety to the situation.
Journalist needed to have bulletproof vests to gain access to the U.N. planes. Once in the air over Serb territory one learned not to wear the vest in the traditional way, but to sit on it. Serbs would fire up at the U.N. planes from their positions on the ground and it was not uncommon for some bullets to find their way through the bottom of the plane’s fuselage and under the seats lining the walls of the C-130 plane. Once landing at the airport in Sarajevo one had to cross the Serb checkpoints that were between the airport and the city center. Although I crossed those checkpoints in an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), it was not uncommon for those APCs to be stopped and searched by the Serbs. Occasionally, Serbs would pull an occupant out of the APC and murder him as U.N. soldiers stood by and watched. Bosnian Deputy Prime Minister, Hakija Turajlić, was assassinated in this way in January 1993, at one such checkpoint that the Serbs occupied.
It was a strange experience to fly from the relative peace of the Split airport at 1pm and by 2pm walk down the streets of the devastated city of Sarajevo during the height of the siege. I had experienced the war in many cities in Croatia. Certainly, Karlovac and Osijek had their share of mortars and snipers. Sisak and the whole area between Sisak and Petrinja had the most powerful explosions that I personally experienced during the entire time travelling in Croatia and Bosnia. I was never in Vukovar, or Vinkovci - and I do not know of any city that faced more complete destruction than Vukovar - but I did experience Sarajevo. There also was not a single moment in the personal life of each individual citizen when they were not at risk from either mortars, or sniper fire. I witnessed old women and children being shot at by the snipers countless times. Sniper fire around government buildings was especially intense and at times fell from the sky like rain.
Friends living in America who had family in Sarajevo, and who knew I was going to Sarajevo, would come to me and ask that I take a package to their family. Packages were normally small, containing medicine, vitamins, fruit, chocolate, coffee, cigarettes, etc… However, the packages would add up and I found that it would mean carrying two heavy suitcases loaded with items for their families. I can imagine the humorous spectacle I must have been as I tried to run through the streets carrying two heavy suitcases while dodging the snipers bullets.
HRsvijet: What were you doing in Sarajevo and Bosnia at the time?
I basically assumed the same role in Sarajevo and Bosnia that I had in Croatia. In addition to influencing Western journalist and U.N. officials, I took on the additional role of trying to influence Bosnian military officials, Bosnian government officials and Bosnian journalists. I was shocked the first time in Sarajevo to see Tito’s picture proudly displayed on government office walls. It was clear they were fighting a war for different reasons than Croats.
An additional goal was to get articles published in the Western press about the genocide occurring in Sarajevo and Bosnia. The most successful articles that I had published were concerning an interview I had with a convicted and admitted Serbian war criminal called Borislav Herak.
Herak plead guilty to murdering civilians and raping women as a Serbian irregular soldier. He took part in the horrible and systematic raping of girls and women at a place Serbs referred to as “Camp Sonja”. The interview and subsequent articles about Herak were published in magazines and newspapers across the United States. The articles were further used as a source in at least two books written about the Serb rape camps in Bosnia. Herak was later killed by a firing squad in Sarajevo after pleading guilty in 1993.
I also quickly discovered, that if I could obtain U.N. press credentials for myself, then others could also be issued U.N. press credentials using my press agency. As a result of this new discovery, I was able to get some people out of Sarajevo aboard U.N. flights using their newly issued U.N. press credentials. One person remains a good friend and lives with her family in America.
HRsvijet: You said the American government in 1996 indicted you. Was this related to your arrest in Germany in 1991?
Yes. I was indicted on October 10, 1996. It was a six-count indictment for violating the Arms Export Control Act (22 U.S.C. 278) in the United States. Each count carries a penalty of 10 years imprisonment and/or $1,000,000 in fines. That meant that I could potentially be sentenced to 60 years in prison and $6,000,000 in fines if I was found guilty.
But the whole process started almost five years earlier when the Germans charged me with illegally bringing weapons and night-vision equipment into Germany. I returned to America and my normal life for a few months in late December 1991, after the so-called “cease-fire” in the war against Croatia. One morning in April of 1992, men awakened me by pounding on my door and yelling, “Federal agents, open up!” The Federal Agent in Charge was standing at my door when I opened it. He had what seemed like an army of agents behind him. “Federal Agents, may we come in?” The agent asked. “Sure, if you have a search warrant,” I replied. With that he produced a search warrant and I let the agents in. About eight federal agents and one local police officer in uniform began filing into my house. I offered the agents coffee and to my surprise two of them accepted and sat at the table sipping their coffee as the others began tearing my house apart. I always felt that the American and German agents were simply doing their job. I never took it personally. The policy of America towards the police state of Yugoslavia was wrong and had been wrong since the Yalta Agreement, but I felt the individual agents and I had shared similar values (i.e., freedom, democracy, individual rights). They were doing their job and I was doing mine. In all my dealings with the agents on this particular day, and in all other subsequent dealings, I found them to be gentlemen and professional in the way they treated me.
HRsvijet: What were they looking for and what did they take when they searched your home?
The search warrant listed various items. When they left my home they were carrying away boxes of documents and a few photographs that they thought supported their case against me. At one point the lead agent showed a picture of me that he found. It was a picture of me holding two hand grenades, one in each hand.
I carried these grenades everywhere during the war in case I was captured. If, that happened, God forbid, I would use one grenade for the Serbs and the second one for myself. I heard enough horror stories when I made the documentary on Bleiburg to know that I would not allow myself to be captured and tortured by Chetniks. “Are these grenades real?” He asked as he showed me the photograph. I looked at him and shrugged my shoulders indicating more that I did not want to talk to him than that I did not know. He continued trying to interrogate me by asking various questions. “What were you doing in Croatia? Do you have any weapons in the house? How did you buy these weapons? Do you have anything in other storage locations?” Finally I told him what I told the authorities in Germany when they arrested me, “I do not want to talk to you.” I stood up and immediately called my attorney.
HRsvijet: It took almost five years to indict you, why did it take the prosecutor so long? What was happening in your life from the time of the original search warrant in April 1992, till your actual indictment in October 1996?
The simplest answer is that they simply did not have enough evidence to convince a grand jury that a crime had been committed. I think this was in part, because the prosecutors and agents failed to retrieve any evidence that was, at one time, in the hands of the German authorities. The American prosecutors tried on several occasions to force the Germans to send all the evidence in their possession to America where it would be used against me in trial. What the American prosecutor did not know was that Croatian government officials were aware of my case, even at this early stage. The Croatian authorities also began communicating with their counterparts in Germany concerning the evidence in their custody. It was around this time that this evidence was suddenly and accidentally “destroyed” by another German agency.
Indicting me without the evidence provided an obstacle, but it obviously did not make it impossible to get an indictment in the future.
This was a period full of intrigue. American agents had me under constant surveillance in one form, or another. Agents would routinely wait until I took out my garbage and then they would retrieve it to sift through it for evidence. In addition, agents were intercepting my mail and federal prosecutors subpoenaed my phone records. Agents interviewed my family, friends and coworkers for years. Apparently, based on the questions that they asked my friends, the government believed that I was supplying the Croatian military with weapons and material. Friends would also relate that agents asked if they knew where I might have a hidden storage area. For these reasons I was also constantly being followed.
HRsvijet: Did your case receive any publicity in Croatia, or America?
Yes, there were articles published in Večernji List in March and April of 1997, concerning my indictment.
In America there was a major story on one of the television stations in Detroit Michigan titled, “International Incident With Ties to Detroit.” The 1992 television story discussed my arrest in Germany the previous year, as well as the concern that I was shipping weapons and night-vision equipment to Croatia.
HRsvijet: Did you ever think of fleeing the United States and go to Croatia in order to escape indictment?
I was encouraged by many people after the indictment to flee America for the safety of Croatia. But I could not for many reasons. First, America is my country. I was born in America and was always proud to be American as well as Croatian. I found it reprehensible to think I would leave America just because the country I was proud to live in for many years was now indicting me as a criminal for an act I knew was honorable. My decision to stay in America and go through the trial, if necessary, was made after a great deal of soul searching. It was a defining moment for me. I believe that a man’s character is best viewed through the window of adversity. Whether I made deals with the prosecution, whether I fled the country, how I behaved at my trial and how I accepted a prison sentence would all reflect on my character.
HRsvijet: What happened finally with the case United States vs. Michael Palaich?
Suddenly on February 19, 1999, I received a call from my attorney who informed me that the United States Attorney, Saul Green, was recommending to the judge that the case against me be dismissed. HRsvijet: Do you know why they suddenly dismissed the case against you after almost eight years of investigation, close to three years of courtroom proceedings and countless amounts of money spent by the government?
When I finally went back to my Pretrial Services Officer to sign some papers and retrieve my passport he was genuinely shocked. The Pretrial Services Officer asked me the same question that you did, “Why did the U.S. Attorney dismiss your case? In all the time I have been here, I have never seen him dismiss a case against a defendant.” My response was simply, “I do not know.” In many ways that was true. My wife and I had talked to so many people from so many areas of Croatian government that it was impossible to know anything for certain. I believed that someone in the Croatian government was involved in my case, but I did not know who, or even what Ministry was responsible at that time.
One friend in the U.N. promised to speak to Madeleine Albright, who was the U.S. Secretary of State at the time. Other friends in various ministries talked about speaking with other Croatian officials. Sometimes, I would receive phone calls from Croatian officials who would call my home asking for information about my case. On other occasions attorneys who represented themselves as working for the Croatian government would contact me. There is one very important phrase commonly used in this situation and that phrase is “plausible denial”. The fewer people that actually know all the details of a particular action, the easier it is to deny having any knowledge that something even happened. This plausible denial and secrecy was also used in my case. For that reason, there came a time when those same influential people in Croatia would no longer even return my phone calls.
HRsvijet: Did you ever discover who in the Croatian government was responsible for getting the American prosecutor to dismiss your indictment?
Yes, but, I did not know for certain until 2010, what exactly had happened. My wife and I met with my friend, who I will call Mr. X, because he still works for the Croatian government, in the restaurant of Hotel Dubrovnik in the summer in 2010. I had not seen, or talked with him for over a decade at this point. We last talked to each other in the lobby of his Zagreb office in1996, just prior to my indictment.
Mr. X began our most recent meeting by apologizing for not speaking to me for so many years.
“Prior to this year” he said, “I would not have even waived to you from across Jeličić Trg if I saw you”. “I was told to avoid you.”
He then went on tell an interesting story that even surprised me. “There was a time that I was being constantly followed by agents in Croatia.”
He went on to explain, “I asked a friend of mine who works for HIS (Croatian intelligence service) what was going on? Why am I being followed everywhere?”
The HIS agent responded, “It’s not about you, it’s about Michael Palaich. The Americans want to learn what is your connection to Palaich. They want to know how you are involved with him.”
I have been at this a long time, but I was shocked. I expected the American agents to follow me while in the U.S., but I did not expect that they would have my friends in Croatia under surveillance.
Mr. X continued, “Since I was not doing anything wrong and you were not doing anything wrong, the Americans eventually called off their surveillance.”
Then he said, “Some time later I was told to report to Gojko Šušak’s office. He wanted to speak to me about your indictment. There was another man there when I arrived at Šušak’s office that I did not recognize. We spoke about your indictment and your case. I told him what I knew about it. Minister Šušak said that he would be speaking to his American counterpart, Secretary of Defense, William Perry, about you and your case the next time they met and what could be done to get your case dismissed by the Americans.”
Mr. X further added, “I then left the office and never heard anything about it again until I heard your case was dismissed by the Americans.”
HRsvijet: Did you have any idea at any time that Gojko Šušak was personally intervening on you behalf?
I did not know for certain, until that meeting with Mr. X in 2010, that it was Gojko Šušak that saved me. I began to get indications as time passed that the Ministry of Defense was taking the lead in my case. First, evidence concerning me in German possession was destroyed; but I cannot get into specifics on that topic. On one occasion I received a phone call at my home in the U.S. from a very high level official in Croatia’s Defense Department (not Minister Šušak). He promised to do whatever he could to help me. Before he hung up I thanked him.
He said. “It is our duty to help you.”
I was impressed that he chose the word “duty,” and it gave me more confidence that the Ministry was really trying to help. I never thought, however, that Minister Šušak would take such a personal interest and play such an important role in helping me. I, and my family, will be forever grateful that Gojko Šušak did not forget me; he rescued, not only me, but also my whole family, from a very dark future. I regret that I did not know before he died how much he helped me so that I could have thanked him for saving me.
At this time in Croatia when Croats are so cynical about their leaders, I think it is good that they know that there was a time when good leaders, who were Croatian patriots, like Gojko Šušak really existed and did more than simply offer lip service to Croatian freedom.
HRsvijet: Do you still come to Croatia these days?
I spend most summers in Croatia with my wife. I have been going back to the same place for fifteen years, but I am sure that our neighbors and the people who live in town only know me as “the American.” They have no idea what I was doing during the war in Croatia and Bosnia.
More than likely they could not, or would not believe the stories even if they were told to them. For them, I am the American - the tourist. Maybe it is best to leave it that way.
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