Independence Day – Croatia

October 8.

We don’t know who drew up the borders of the successors of former Yugoslavia, but Croatia has the good fortune to hog the eastern shore of the Adriatic, giving it some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe. Alfred Hitchcock once proclaimed the sunset from Zadar the finest in world.

It also boasts more than its share of a new UNESCO designation known as “Intangible Cultural Heritage.” At fourteen and counting, no European country has bagged more of these ‘intangibilities’ than Croatia (though they’re neck-in-neck with Spain). Croatia is indeed brimming with unique rituals, crafts, and traditions, not the least of which is my favorite: Gingerbread craft from Northern Croatia, or “Licitars.” Check out what these people can do with a little flour, sugar, baking soda, and spices. Mmm…

©seanpu1. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
©seanpu1. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Independence Day didn’t make the cut, but several other Croatian holidays and festivals did, including the Zvoncari Carnival bell-ringers’ pageant, the Hvar Island (forgive me if I’m pronouncing this wrong) Za Krizen Procession on Maundy Thursday, and the festival of Saint Blaise, patron saint of the city of Dubrovnik, on February 3rd.

Dubrovnik!?! Dubrovnik, you say! Where the heck’s that? Game of Thrones fans know it as King’s Landing. And it’s doing for Dubrovnik tourism what Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand. Although this late in the game, Croatia needs little help in the tourism department. After years of warfare in the 1990s, Croatia became a leading European destination the following decade due to its pristine beauty.

Independence Day stems from the 1991 decision to split from Yugoslavia following a state-wide referendum. That declaration, made on June 25, 1991, is celebrated as Statehood Day. Afterwards, the European Community nudged Croatia not to do anything rash for three months. So they didn’t. But when moratorium expired in October, the Yugoslav Air Force bombed the Croatian president’s house, and Croatia officially severed its ties with Yugoslavia on October 8. Independence was recognized the following January.

Independence Day (October 8) became a national holiday in 2002.

Independence Day – Democratic Republic of the Congo

June 30

I ask you to make this June 30, 1960, an illustrious date that you will keep indelibly engraved in your hearts, a date of significance of which you will teach to your children, so that they will make known to their sons and to their grandchildren the glorious history of our fight for liberty.

Patrice Lumumba, first Prime Minister of the Congo, Independence Speech

The people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) respect Lumumba’s wishes on June 30, the anniversary of the country’s independence from Belgium, but it’s a day tinged with sadness, as they also remember the death of the man who guided them to independence.

Lumumba also holds the distinction of being the only world leader we know of to have nearly been killed by toothpaste.

President Eisenhower was not a huge fan of Lumumba back in 1960. Despite being democratically elected, Lumumba had Soviet leanings, and the Congo held resources vital to the West, uranium being chief among them.

The Belgian government had issues with Lumumba as well. His independence speech, at which the Belgian king was present, made it clear that Lumumba would be no puppet ruler, and the Congo would be no colony.

The CIA installed an operative (Larry Devlin) to be prepared to assassinate Lumumba at a moment’s notice. The weapon of choice: a tube of poisonous toothpaste to be planted among the Prime Minister’s toiletries. For whatever reason, the CIA never gave Devlin the order.

Instead, in September 1960, the charismatic Lumumba was deposed in a CIA-supported coup d’état by his former aide, Colonel Joseph Mobutu, and was executed the following January under mysterious circumstances. Mobutu went on to control the country for over 30 years, renamed it Zaire, and embezzled over $5 billion from the nation’s purse. Mobutu lost power in 1997, and the country became the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Patrice Lumumba, USSR stamp, 1961
Patrice Lumumba, USSR stamp, 1961

The battle for power in the DRC since 1997—also known as the African World War—has been cited as the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Iceland National Day

June 17

“So weareth summer: Uspak rideth to the Leet and halloweth it; and when harvest comes, he fares to the fells when men go after their wethers, and they were brought in well, for the searching was careful, and no sheep were missing, either of Odd’s or any other man’s.” — The Story of the Banded Men, ancient Islandic saga

Summer is here, and few appreciate that fact more than the Icelanders. On June 17, one of the longest days of the year, Iceland celebrates its independence from Denmark in 1944.

That’s right, the Icelanders left Denmark during its darkest hour, when the mother country was on its knees, occupied by Nazi Germany in World War II.* That just shows how sneaky Icelanders are.

In fact Iceland was founded on sneakiness. It was named “Iceland” despite its volcanos and steaming geysers to convince tourists to try someplace “sunnier.” Like Greenland.

And the ploy worked. Today Iceland has a population of only 320,000. Meaning if Iceland were a U.S. city, it would be vying with Riverside, California for the coveted “60th biggest city in the nation” spot.

Despite its diminutive size, Iceland is was an economic powerhouse. It ranked #1 in the UN Human Development Index in 2007/2008, and is consistently one of the wealthiest countries in the world, per capita. Or at least it was until 2008 when the global financial crisis decimated the Icelandic economy. When the smoke cleared, it turned out the three largest banks in the country had nursed a combined debt equal to six times Iceland’s annual GDP.

The crisis hasn’t put a damper on this year’s celebrations though, which are set to include parades, dancing, singing and merry-making as usual.

June 17 was chosen as the day to officially break away from Denmark back in 1944 because it was the birthday of Jón Sigurðsson, the leading proponent for Icelandic independence back in the 19th century.

“He who lives without discipline dies without honor.” — Icelandic proverb

“Two men need one money, but one money needs no man. One is on one’s knees, loses one’s head, except maybe a delicious demon. Hee how!” — Bjork

*At the time of its independence, Iceland was occupied by the Allies. British troops landed in 1941; U.S. troops took over soon after. And left in 2006.

Restoration of Lithuania’s Independence

March 11

The great thing about being a tiny nation sandwiched between Russia and Germany is that you get to celebrate so many Independence Days! Lucky Lithuanians. Here it’s only March and the country celebrates its third independence-related holiday of the year!

Lithuania’s main Independence Day is February 16, which celebrates the day in 1918 that the Council of Lithuania declared itself finally independent of both Russia and Germany during the chaos of World War I and the Russian Revolution. (See Lithuanian Independence Day.)

But the briefly independent nation was consumed by the Soviet giant at the outbreak of World War II.

Over fifty years later on March 11, 1990, the Lithuanian government declared that the Lithuanian State that was “abolished by foreign forces in 1940, is re-established, and henceforth Lithuania is again an independent state.

The aptly named “Act of March 11” is what the country celebrates today.

The act of rebellion didn’t sit so well with Soviet leaders. As nationalism in Lithuania rose, Soviet tanks entered the capital of Vilnius in January 1991, killing 14 people and injuring hundreds. Lithuanians remember January 13 as Freedom Defenders Day.

Independence Day – Western Sahara

February 27

Independence does not mean PeaceA common theme in decolonization. When Western powers depart from their former colonies, old claims over the newly-independent territory resurface, and neighboring powers assert that the new nation was a territory prior to its European annexation.

Morocco and Western Sahara are neighbors but their history is like night and day.

Morocco was an independent nation back when America was still a colony of Britain. Morocco was one of the first nations to recognize the fledgling United States in 1777, and the Moroccan-American Friendship Treaty remains the U.S.’s longest unbroken treaty.

Morocco’s colonial days were relatively brief. Morocco’s status as a French protectorate was finalized in 1905, but it became one of the first African nations to gain independence in 1956.

African Nations by Independence, 1950-1993

Western Sahara is another matter. Its borders are disputed even today. The region has been claimed by Morocco, Mauritania, Spain, and France, and wasn’t granted ‘independence’ from Spain until 1975. It wasn’t really independence though. Morocco was granted the top 2/3’s of Western Sahara. Mauritania received the remaining third.  Spain’s formal mandate expired on February 26, 1976.

The following day a political faction known as Polisario announced themselves as the true government-in-exile of the country, occupied by Morocco.

The fighting rages on to this day. Donald MacDonald writes, “Since my visit to the camps in June 1993, the political stalemate has dragged on, “disappearances” of Saharawi citizens have continued, and the refugee camps have been devastated by flooding.”

The Moroccan press claims, “The Shrawis, who arrived in three groups to El Karkrat, fled the Tindouf Camps (southwestern Algeria) where thousands of Moroccan-Sahara natives are held against their will by the Algerian-backed separatist movement Polisario.”

Currently “158,800 Sahrawi refugees live in camps in the Algerian desert where malnutrition is widespread.”

Journalists covering the independence movement in Western Sahara have been assaulted, detained or expelled. One journalist who referred to the Sahrawis (Western Saharans) living in Algeria as “refugees” (rather than as “captives” of the Polisario) was taken to court, fined, and barred from journalism for 10 years.

“Media criticism of the authorities is often quite blunt, but is nevertheless circumscribed by a press law that provides prison terms for libel and for expression critical of “Islam, the institution of the monarchy, or the territorial integrity” of Morocco (a phrase understood to mean Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara.”

The Gambia – Independence Day

February 18


Early in the spring of 1750, in the village of Juffure, four days upriver from the coast of The Gambia, West Africa, a man-child was born to Omoro and Binta Kinte.

So begins Alex Haley’s classic Roots: the Saga of an American Family. The book and subsequent mini-series reawakened the American consciousness to the history of slavery and the black experience in America.

It’s actually The Gambia, not Gambia.

Inclusion of the article “The” in the Gambia’s case is because the country is essentially a tiny sliver of land drilled into the west coast of Senegal. It’s made up of the land that hugs the Gambia River as it winds to the Atlantic.

In Roots, Kunta Kinte is captured in The Gambia, transported on a slave ship and sold into slavery in Maryland.

That Haley can trace his ancestral line to what is now Africa’s smallest country (At 10,000 square kilometers, The Gambia is smaller than Connecticut) is not unusual. According to Wikipedia:

As many as 3 million slaves may have been taken from the [Senegambia] region during the three centuries that the transatlantic slave trade operated.

If accurate, that would mean thirty Africans were abducted from Senegambia a day, every day, for three hundred years.

The Gambia Fort

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the first American President to visit Africa when he spent the night in The Gambia en route to the Casablanca Conference in 1943.

The Gambia achieved independence from Great Britain on February 18, 1965.

For the first 15 years of its independence The Gambia enjoyed its reputation as a model multi-party democracy for African nations. An unsuccessful but bloody attempted coup in 1981 dented that reputation. The country’s President Dawda Jawara was in England attending the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana when his government was nearly ousted from power. He maintained control via an agreement with Senegal to back his government with military force.

A second coup, in July 1994 was successful, ending Jawara’s near 30-year reign. The head lieutenant of the coup and Gambia’s future leader, Yahya Jammeh, had not been born when Jawara first became Prime Minister.

Kosovo – Independence?

February 17

Happy Birthday Kosovo!

Although it’s not all that happy. The newborn nation is still in the throes of economic devastation and ethnic violence. Nor do we know yet if February 17 will continue to be celebrated as the young nation’s independence holiday. Or for that matter, if Kosovo actually is independent.

The State Assembly in Kosovo’s capitol of Pristina declared its independence from Serbia on February 17, 2008. Since that time over 50 countries have recognized the world’s youngest nation’s independence. However, Serbia is not one of those countries.

According to Serbian President Boris Tadic, February 17 is “just a date when an illegal act was enacted, when Pristina proclaimed Kosovo a so-called state.

Tensions between the ethnic groups that make up the Balkans and the former Republic of Yugoslavia were subdued under the leadership of Josip Tito, who ruled the amalgamation of states for over 30 years after World War II. The states that made up Yugoslavia were: Bosnia and Herzegovenia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia, of which Kosovo was an autonomous province. Tito’s government stressed “Unity in Brotherhood”, the idea that Yugoslavia’s people were essentially one, but had been divided by foreign occupiers over previous generations.

That idea didn’t fly after Tito’s death in 1980. Ethnic nationalism rose and in 1991 and 1992, most states seceded from Yugoslavia (literally, “South Slavs” land) leaving Serbia and Montenegro the sole members of the former republic.


Smaller than Connecticut, Kosovo is home to over 2 million people, 90% of them ethnic Albanians, with the remainder mostly Serbs. Kosovo first declared independence in 1991, but the movement was put down by Serbian leaders like Slobodan Milosevic.

War ravaged the Balkans throughout the 1990s. The Kosovo War of 1998-1999 left between 5,000 and 10,000 people dead, and culminated with the controversial NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The state was governed by the UN between 1999 and 2008.

…what Milosevic and his regime tried to do for the Serbian people during their time could not be more wrong. I mean you do not just dispose of people as they thought they could do. You do not fire people en masse, you do not take their housing rights, you do not ignore 2 million people as if they did not exist, and most of all you do not run them away from their homes and their property.

On the other hand what that regime did was not new to Kosovo at all, it had all been done before by the Albanian side…between 1974 and 1988. And let me tell you, it was not easy to be anything but Albanian during those years in Kosovo.

…Having said all of this I can say the place is cursed and will never be peaceful.

— “Srecko”, from Kosovo, “Memories of Kosovo“, BBC

[Published 2009]

Lithuanian Independence Day

February 16

“The Council of Lithuania in its session of February 16, 1918 decided unanimously to address the governments of Russia, Germany, and other states with the following declaration:

“The Council of Lithuania, as the sole representative of the Lithuanian nation, based on the recognized right to national self-determination, and on the Vilnius Conference’s resolution of September 18-23, 1917, proclaims the restoration of the independent state of Lithuania, founded on democratic principles, with Vilnius as its capital, and declares the termination of all state ties which formerly bound this State to other nations.

“The Council of Lithuania also declares that the foundation of the Lithuanian State and its relations with other countries will be finally determined by the Constituent Assembly, to be convoked as soon as possible, elected democratically by all its inhabitants.”

These short paragraphs are what the nation of Lithuania celebrates today, February 16, as its independence day. A declaration that declared an end to over a century of Russian occupation.

Lithuania was first united in the thirteenth century by the enigmatic Mindaugas. (No, he was not a Harry Potter character, that’s Mundungus.) Mindaugas was the first and last King of Lithuania. He converted to Christianity to attain the support of the Pope and the Livonian Order, but reverted back to Paganism after. He and his wife Morta were crowned King and Queen in 1253. When she died ten years later Mindaugas made the fatal mistake of taking Morta’s sister as his wife. She was already married to a former ally of Mindaugas, Daumantas. Mindaugas was used to annexing numerous lands, but Daumantas did not take the annexation of his wife so readily, and helped Mindaugas’s nephew assassinate the King along with two of the king’s sons. Never again was there crowned a king of Lithuania.

By the end of the 1300s Lithuania was the largest state in Europe. Its land included parts of what is now Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Russia.

Lithuania on steroids

One gift the Lithuanians bestowed upon Eastern Europe during the 16th century was the codification of its laws in the Three Statutes of Lithuania. The Sobornoye Ulozheniye, the first complete code of Russian law, was based in part on the Lithuanian codes.

A political bond with Poland endured in various manifestations through the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries until the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was eaten up piece by piece by the superpowers growing around it: Prussia, Austria, and mainly Russia.

Catherine II of Russia’s attitude was: “Polotsk and Lithuania have been taken and retaken about twenty times, and treaty was ever concluded without one side or the other claiming part or all of it, depending on circumstances.

Lithuania remained under Russian control for over a century. During World War I the Lithuanian government exploited the weakness of the Russian Empire and the animosity between Russia and Germany. A Council of Lithuania passed a series of Acts starting in late 1917 and early 1918 which repudiated Russian rule. Germany, which occupied parts of Western Russia, was happy to see pieces of the Russian Empire break away, thinking they would pick up the crumbs. However, when Germany began losing the war in 1918 their position to negotiate declined. And with the Act of Independence of February 16, 1918, Lithuania achieved independence from both Russia and Germany.

The 20 Signatories of the Act of Independence

The celebration was short lived. During World War II Lithuania was overrun by Soviet tanks on their way to Poland, followed by German tanks on their way to Russia, and again by the Soviets on their way to Berlin.

January 13, 1991, the Soviet Union, fearful of increasing nationalist sentiment in Lithuania invaded the city of Vilnius and attacked the TV tower and other buildings. Images of the attack spread throughout the world, and were influential in the eventual fall of the Soviet Union eight months later.
The short Act of Independence of 1918, with its emphasis on democratic principles, was cited by Lithuanians as the inspiration for and the basis of the rebirth of their sovereign state.

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