Actors, artists assume defense role in Croatian tragedy

November 10, 1991|By Jason Feer | Jason Feer,Special to The Sun

ZAGREB, Yugoslavia -- The latest unit to develop in Croatia's army may bring choreography to the battle strategy in the siege of the breakaway republic.

It is the Croatian Art Force, and its members recently traded in their pens, paintbrushes and ballet slippers for assault rifles, hand grenades and army boots in a bid to help win independence for Croatia.

The 88 men and two women of the new infantry unit, who in civilian life were writers, dancers, sculptors, painters and actors, recently finished two weeks of combat training and are waiting to be sent into the field.

At the Art Force's recent graduation ceremony in Zagreb, it was apparent that the former artists still had some trouble with the idea of military discipline. As Croatian Defense Minister Gojko Susak was reviewing the troops, some of the artist-soldiers broke ranks to talk to wives and girlfriends. Others lighted cigarettes and leaned on their guns once Mr. Susak had passed.

The unit was the brainchild of Tom Stojkovic, an actor and theater director from the embattled city of Dubrovnik. "None of us were inspired to create anything artistic because of all the fighting," he said. "But we could not just watch as our country was torn to pieces."

Mr. Stojkovic began recruiting actors, but artists from other media also enlisted. The Art Force's theatrical origins are evident in the unit's shoulder insignia -- the masks of comedy and tragedy.

Private funding has made the Art Force one of the few Croatian units in which all soldiers are equipped with the same uniforms and arms -- no small feat in an army where many fight in blue jeans and others are armed with crossbows. The Art Force is also the only Croatian unit that has its own video camera crew.

Though the unit received limited training, members were confident that they would be able to handle the rigors of battle.

"Many of us are already in good condition because of our jobs," said Igor Sedmakov, a ballet dancer with the National Theater of Croatia.

Gesturing toward a group of overweight men a few feet away, Mr. Sedmakov acknowledged that physical fitness was still a problem for some soldiers in the unit. "Some of us, mostly writers and painters, still make inviting targets, but they will learn that it is better to be smaller," he said grimly.

Mr. Stojkovic said that it proved difficult to develop killer instincts among the troops in the Art Force. "How do you teach peaceful people to kill, when all they really want is to be left alone to paint or write?" he asked. "The hardest part was bayonet training. None of them wanted to stab the dummies."

Nevertheless, the soldiers in the Art Force seemed determined to make a good showing in the field.

"It is true that we are not aggressive people," said Darko Bolhacic, a dancer with the Zagreb Ballet. "But if we have to fight and kill to be free, then that is what we will do."

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