On the day of the international recognition of the Republic of Croatia a third of…
In the presence of the Perešin family, the highest state officials, representatives of the Croatian Armed Forces, veterans of Croatia’s Homeland War and numerous civilians gathered in front of the Croatian Ministry of Defence in Zagreb, the return of Croatian pilot Rudolf Perešin’s MiG-21 aircraft was marked in a ceremony appropriately titled “The Return of the Victor” on 12th May, ahead of the 24th anniversary of the legendary Homeland War hero’s death and the 22nd edition of air meet Meetings for Rudi.
Owing to the commitment by the Croatian government as well as excellent relations between Austria and Croatia, the MiG-21 aircraft No. 26112 was restored to Croatia after 28 years. From now, it will be a permanent reminder of one of the most famous feats of the Homeland War: Perešin’s legendary flight from Bihać (Bosnia and Herzegovina) to Klagenfurt (Austria).
Along with Perešin’s family, the return ceremony was attended by the envoy of the President of the Republic of Croatia and the Commander-in-Chief of the Croatian Armed Forces Zrinko Petener, the envoy of the Speaker of the Croatian Parliament Major General (Ret.) Miljenko Filipović, Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence Damir Krstičević, Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Marija Pejčinović Burić, the Chief of the General Staff of the Croatian Armed Forces General Mirko Šundov with his associates, the Minister of the Interiror Davor Božinović, the Minister of Homeland War Veterans’ Affairs Tomo Medved, the Minister of Health Milan Kujundžić, Homeland War veteran Lieutenant General (Ret.) Ante Gotovina, former Croatian Ministers of Defence and Chiefs of the General Staff of the Croatian Armed Forces, members of the Croatian Armed Forces, veterans of the Homeland War, representatives of local authorities, etc.
Mr Petener thanked the Perešin family on the sacrifice they had made, adding that Rudolf Perešin’s feats were a testimony of the support he had enjoyed from his family.
“When recalling Homeland War heroes, we often forget that behind each heroic act stands not only an individual’s decisiveness but also the support of their family, who sent off their loved ones to the front,” Petener said.
On behalf of the Speaker of the Croatian Parliament, Major General (Ret.) Miljenko Filipović thanked all Homeland War veterans for laying their lives at the altar of their homeland, placing particular emphasis in his speech on Croatian pilot Rudolf Perešin’s valour and determination.
“This brave knight took a huge leap even though it put him and his family in jeopardy. He left a permanent mark in the history of the Croatian Armed Forces and their air force when he entered Austrian airspace on 25th October 1991, thus inflicting a difficult moral and political wound on the aggressor’s army and reinvigorating the Croatian people’s faith, hope and morale in the most difficult days of the battle for liberty,” Major General Filipović recalled.
Croatian Prime Minister underlined that the return ceremony was a product of the Croatian government’s silent but determined efforts to return the legendary MiG-21, a symbol of the Homeland War, to Croatia.
“For the last two and a half years, all levels of our defence policy have been working silently and systematically on restoring Perešin’s MiG-21 to Croatia. The message that Rudolf Perešin sent out in 1991 not only to the Croatian people but also the whole world is a message of freedom, gallantry, strength, audacity and patriotism – the qualities that adorned Perešin as a human being and that adorned Croatian warriors who brought peace and freedom to Croatia in the Homeland War. That message is with us again. Perešin’s important role in Operation Flash will be remembered forever as his second great, specific contribution to the liberation of the Croatian territory. Like many others, he gave his life, his all for Croatia. It is up to us to preserve the memory of the victims of the Homeland Warm, strengthen the Croatian Armed Forces and the Croatian police and bring honour to the veteran of the Homeland War and their families. The story of Rudolf Perešin’s landing in Klagenfurt is a story of Croatian liberty. We must never treasure it forever,” said Andrej Plenković, adding that the ceremony was a way of spreading the word about the values of the Homeland War to Croatian youth. Plenković went on to thank the Minister of Defence Damir Krstičević and the Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Marija Pejćinović Burić on the efforts they invested into the return of Perešin’s MiG-21.
Minister Krstičević recalled Rudolf Perešin’s ultimate flight in the Croatian Armed Forces’ victorious Operation Flash, emphasizing that Perešin’s aircraft was a memento of the Homeland War veterans’ valour and obstinacy, more so as it had instilled hope in Croatian defenders in trying times.
“This aircraft is a piece of history and a symbol of the beginnings of the Croatian Armed Forces and their air force. Perešin’s MiG aircraft is a symbol of Croatian people’s fight for independence. Its return is of immeasurable value to Croatia,” Krstičević said.
“Above all, the aircraft is a memento of a man who dared to say that he was a Croat and that he could not and would not fire at his people. It is a keepsake of a true hero who invigorated strength in all of us. The aircraft is our legacy and a part of our winning tradition. At last it is among us, where it belongs,” Minister Krstičević said while expressing his belief that the Croatian Military Museum, to be modelled on similar museums in the west, would be constructed by 2025 and that Perein’ MiG aircraft would be its central exhibit.
General Šundov pointed out that Perešin’s overflight inspired courage in Croatian defenders and patriots to persist in a just fight for freedom and independence, while simultaneously shedding spotlight on the position of Croats in the Yugoslav People’s Army and the role the international community ought to play in Serbian aggression on the Republic of Croatia.
“Rudolf Perešin dreamt of this day. He left a permanent mark in our history by becoming an example of patriotism, valour and dedication,” General Šundov said, admitting that he would never forget the delight kindled by the first sight of aircraft with Croatian marking during the Homeland War.
Minister Pejćinović Burić said there had never been any doubt that Perešin’s aircraft would return to Croatia.
“The process was a long one, but there was never any doubt that the aircraft belonged to Croatia and ought to be restored to it. This day is an emotional one and I extend my appreciation to the entire team that has been involved in the project for the last two and a half years,” Pejćinović Burić said.
The historic MiG-21 was unveiled by former pilots of the 1st Fighter Aircraft Squadron and the Combat Aircraft Squadron who had participated in the Homeland War: Colonel (Ret.) Ivan Selak, Colonel (Ret.) Darko Cigrovski, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Ivica Ivandić and Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Danijel Borović. They were joined by cadet pilots Josip Jelača (23rd class of military pilots) and Lovre Krnić (24th class of military pilots), a student at the Vice-Roy Josip Jelačić War College Colonel Željko Ninić and the Commander of the Combat Aircraft Squadron, 91st Air Base Lieutenant Colonel Christian Jagodić.
Actor Pere Eranović, a son of a fallen Croatian defender in the Homeland War, read a drama text about Perešin, which included the Homeland War hero’s statement to Croatian media after his legendary flight over Austria: “I did what I felt was the duty of every Croatian citizen. Every person who perceives Croatia as their homeland should contribute to the fight for its freedom. True heroes are on battle lines in Vukovar and elsewhere. Many of their names will remain unknown.”
Ljerka Perešin, Staff Brigadier Rudolf Perešin’s wife, unveiled an info panel installed next to her late husband’s aircraft. The legendary Croatian pilot’s uniform, borrowed from the holdings of the Croatian History Museum, is currently on exhibit in the entrance hall of the Croatian Ministry of Defence.
“This fowl of the air is a symbol of Croatian resistance”
Speaking of the legendary Croatian pilot as a father and a husband, Rudolf Perešin’s daughter Daliborka Perešin-Kekelić recalled the words her father would often say to her.
“My Dad always told me to be calm, collected, proud and dignified. Today, however, I am very excited. My heart wants to jump out of my chest. I have not felt it beat this strongly in a long time. It took a lot of perseverance, eagerness, earnest volition, love and silent diplomacy for this to happen. I wish to thank the Croatian government and everyone involved in the return of this fowl of the air, a symbol of Croatian resistance,” Perešin-Kekelić said, adding that she was happy that Croatian youth would have a chance to see and learn from that part of Croatian history. “We must teach them that the Homeland War was a defensive war and that we obtained our own state through struggle. Now, we must look at the future. As a nation, we must dive into new challenges with firmness and responsibility. Each of us has to do everything in their might so that our homeland could prosper in the world. My wish is that this aircraft be a memento of all pilots, all defenders who wove their lives into our only, our dear Croatia,” Perešin-Kekelić underlined
In conclusion, Perešin’s daughter said: “Although the last two and a half years in my family have been marked by uncertainty, hope and great sadness, I iterate that I would never trade my country for any other because I love it and believe in it.”
Meetings for Rudi
Following a ceremony marking the return of Rudolf Perešin’s aircraft to Croatia, Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence Damir Krstičević, acting as an envoy of the President of the Republic of Croatia and the Commander-in-Chief of the Croatian Armed Forces as well as Croatian Prime Minister, opened the 22nd edition of air meet Meetings for Rudi in the north Croatian village of Gornja Stubica.
Along with the Perešin family and Minister Krstičević, the opening ceremony was attended by the Assistant Minister of the Homeland War Veterans’ Affairs Dinko Tandara, who acted as an envoy of the Minister of Homeland War Veterans’ Affairs, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Croatian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Drago Matanović, Special Advisor to the Minister of Defence Božo Kožul, the Commander of the Croatian Air Force Brigadier General Mato Mikić as well as the representatives of the local authorities and Homeland War veterans’ associations. On the occasion, the attendees lit candles and laid wreaths in Rudolf Perešin Memorial Park.
The day dedicated to Rudolf Perešin was augmented with a flight of the Croatian Air Force’s MiG-21 aircraft over Zagreb during a ceremony titled “The Return of the Victor”, while the visitors of the air meet in Gornja Stubica were enraptured by a flight programme featuring MiG-21 aircraft and Mil Mi-171Sh helicopters.
Furthermore, a contract for the construction of the Rudolf Perešin Merorial House in the village of Jakšinec was signed in Gornja Stubica.
At Meetings for Rudi, Krstičević recalled Perešin’s contribution in the development of the Croatian Air Force and the sacrifice he made for the creation of an independent Croatian state. “Today, just like during the Homeland War, Perešin is a role model to generations of Croatian pilots. His heroic deeds are recorded in golden letters. I extended my appreciation to everyone preserving the memory of Rudi. It is important to pass the truth about the values of Homeland War to today’s youth,” Minister Krstičević underlined.
Assistant Minister for Homeland War Veterans’ Affairs Dinko Tandara called on all attendees to respect their homeland the way that all Homeland War veterans, Rudolf Perešin included, had done.
The Commander of the Croatian Air Force recalled the great influence that Perešin’s flight over Austria in 1991 had on the morale of Croatian soldiers fighting in the Homeland War. “Suddenly, anything seemed possible because Rudi had convinced us that it was. His sacrifice obliges us to pass on the stories about the heroism of men and women who were made immortal by their deeds. Only a nation that knows its past can build a safe future,” Brigadier General Mikić said.
Ljerka Perešin thanked the Croatian government for the efforts they had invested in restoring her late husband’s aircraft: “Much time, effort and love has had to be invested in such a project and Minister Krstičević has done an excellent job.”
Meetings for Rudi have been held for the last 22 years in the memory of Staff Brigadier Rudolf Perešin (1958 – 1995). Staff Brigadier Perešin won glory on 25th October 1991, when he flew to Klagenfurt with his MiG-21 aircraft and sent the following message to the world: “I am a Croat. I cannot and will not fire at my people!” For days later, he returned to Croatia, joined the Croatian Air Force and played an important role in its development. He participated in all major operations of the Homeland War. His MiG-21 aircraft was struck in the skies above the Croatian village of Stara Gradiška on 2nd May 1995, during Operation Flash. The enemy side returned his remains on 4th August 1997 and he was buried at the Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb on 15th September 1997.
Text by JELENA JAKŠIĆ
Photo by JOSIP KOPI
Translation by IVA GUGO