Niko was on his evening run in a park in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, when he heard the screams.
A man stumbled out of the trees, “bleeding from his head” and “wailing”. He was followed by two other men, who kicked him to the ground and beat him with bats.
“I went to the victim's aid, shouted and asked them to stop,” says Niko, who spoke to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity.
The victim used the distraction to escape, leaving Niko to size up the attackers. They were young men, and they wore gloves even though it was a warm evening. As he was leaving the park, Niko ran into the victim again, who “was visibly shocked and upset.”
“I asked him if he needed help, if he wanted to call an ambulance or the police, but he asked to be left alone and just wanted to go home,” Niko says.
The attack took place last August at Lake Jarun, a park and popular spot for the gay community on the southern edge of Zagreb. Since then, there have been a number of similar incidents in Croatia, a majority-Catholic Balkan country where social attitudes towards LGBTQ people skew conservative.
Zagreb Pride spokesman Franko Dota tells VICE World News that homophobic violence in Croatia has escalated in the past year, with a spree of attacks targeting gay men in parks in the country’s capital.
“There is a pair, if not a group, of homophobic violent bashers that have organised themselves to attack gay men in Zagreb parks, not just to beat them up but also to throw flaming material on them,” he says.
In late December, in what activists described as one of the worst hate crimes in Croatia in decades, a 51-year-old gay man was set on fire in Maksimir Park, a sprawling, heavily forested area in Zagreb’s east known as a gay cruising hotspot. The victim told local media two masked men demanded to know what he was doing at the park and who he was meeting, then threw a Molotov cocktail at him. His cries for help attracted passers-by, who took him to the hospital. He was left with severe burns to his face, neck and chest.
After the attack, Zagreb Pride urged witnesses of other incidents to come forward. Dota says the organisation immediately received several reports of similar attacks targeting gay men in parks around Zagreb.
Along with the attack he interrupted at Lake Jarun, Niko says he also knows of two other gay men who were assaulted over the summer at Maksimir Park and doused in a “self-igniting substance”.
Violence and hate speech targeting the LGBTQ community is nothing new in Croatia. A survey by Zagreb Pride in 2019 found 60 percent of LGBTQ respondents had been physically or verbally attacked due to their sexuality or gender identity.
In a highly publicised incident in early 2020, people at a carnival in the small town of Imotski in southern Croatia set fire to an effigy of a same-sex couple and cheered as it burned. The display, which was to protest a Constitutional Court ruling giving gay couples the right to foster children, made international headlines and drew a sharp rebuke from Croatia’s president, who called it a “sad, inhumane and totally unacceptable act”.
But Dota says the country’s leadership, including its centre-right government, has largely been reluctant to stand up for the country’s LGBTQ community.
“No one in a position of power – the Minister of Interior, or the Prime Minister, or even a member of parliament that is in the majority – has said this is horrible, we condemn any kind of violence against minorities,” he says. “It’s absurd. They read the same newspapers as we do.”
According to a report by ILGA Europe, in 2020, there were at least six incidents in Croatia involving rainbow flags being torn down or set on fire. Last June, in a video posted to the Instagram of a pride group in Croatia’s second-largest city, Split, a mob of people can be seen surrounding a flagpole and trying to set a rainbow flag ablaze. Then in October, “Death to faggots” was painted on the windows of a lesbian organisation’s exhibition in Rijeka, about two hours from Zagreb. In late February 2021, local media reported a 44-year-old woman was pushed in front of a tram in broad daylight by two young men shouting homophobic slurs. She was dragged several metres and suffered a number of injuries. The alleged attackers were arrested and released to await their trial.
But activists say the police have sometimes been slow to investigate hate speech and assaults targeting LGBTQ people or have wrongly prosecuted them as minor offences.
In January 2021, after a decade of litigation, the European Court of Human Rights found the Croatian authorities failed to recognise the case of a lesbian woman who was punched and kicked at a nightclub in Zagreb in 2010 by a man saying all lesbians should be “killed” as a hate crime. Instead, the woman’s attacker was charged with breach of public peace and order and fined the equivalent of 40 euros.
When a gay man was set on fire in Maksimir Park in December, Dota says it was only after a public outcry that the police started to “believe” the victim and investigate his assault as a hate crime. He added that some LGBT people who have gone to the authorities to report being assaulted have encountered “insensitive” language about their sexuality or gender identity.
“[The police] would usually say – and this is really horrible – ‘What are you? What are you, really?’” Dota says.
A spokesperson for the Croatian Ministry of the Interior and the Croatian police said they “condemn all criminal offences committed as hate crimes” and urged victims and witnesses to come forward.
However, they denied there has been an “escalation in homophobic violence” and defended the actions of the police, saying officers “act with particular regard for victims of incidents motivated by hatred.”
“A significant number of hours in police officers’ training… are dedicated precisely to human rights, discrimination and hate crimes,” the spokesperson said. “In order to protect the rights of LGBTQ persons, the police carry out many preventive activities in cooperation with civil society organisations, aimed at raising public awareness about hate crimes.”
Nonetheless, Dota fears the political and social progress that’s been made by LGBTQ people in Croatia in the past decade – the country joined the European Union in 2013 and legalised same-sex civil partnerships a year later – is slowly being undone.
“Organised attacks by skinheads, fascists and homophobes on known gay gathering places is not something that had been recorded in Zagreb in the last ten to 20 years,” he says.
“Uncondemned hate speech gives a free pass to hate crimes, to violence. It’s being normalised.”
Last month, the European Parliament declared the whole of the European Union an “LGBTIQ Freedom Zone” in response to anti-LGBT resolutions in Poland. But Dota says rising anti-gay violence in Croatia shows LGBTQ people in the EU’s newest member state are far from free to live their lives openly.
“Whether it’s at a tram station, or a park, or a bar, gays and lesbians and LGBTIQ people in general in Zagreb and in Croatia do not show affection or their identities in public,” Dota says.