WORLD

A NUMBERS GAME

Croatia’s latest move may hasten an end to the fighting

BRUCE WALLACE August 28 1995
WORLD

A NUMBERS GAME

Croatia’s latest move may hasten an end to the fighting

BRUCE WALLACE August 28 1995

A NUMBERS GAME

WORLD

Croatia’s latest move may hasten an end to the fighting

So, Mother, the catastrophe I warned you about since 1991 has happened. Did one plane from Serbia try to help you? No. Did they send one soldier to save their people and their children? No.

That is why I stayed in Croatia from the beginning. I stayed here in the worst of times. I proved 1 can survive here. If you decide to come back to Croatia, things will be better. Why leave everything we worked for all our lives? Why leave the land we worked for five centuries? I don’t want to leave the graves of our family. No God can push me out of here.

— Letter sent Aug. 10 from Boris Raceta, a 27-year-old Serb in Zagreb, Croatia, to his mother, Savka, now living in a refugee camp in Serbia after fleeing her home in Krajina

There are fewer people like Boris Raceta living in the blasted, burnt lands of the former Yugoslavia this week. Fewer people ready to encourage friends and family to live alongside other ethnic groups. A shrinking number who believe that their best prospects lie as minority citizens amid the feverish nationalism of the majority.

On the other hand, there are thousands more like Savka: refugees on the run with only the possessions they can carry, trapped in a vise of warring armies and cynical politicians. Ethnic cleansing, a new name for a concept as old as war, has resumed with a vengeance in the Balkans this summer. Dismal columns of haggard, terrified families—thousands of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, all searching for a place to live in peace—have clogged roads across the warring republics. Some end up in refugee camps. Others are being resettled in strategic areas, pawns in the ethnic numbers game that so infatuates Balkan politicians. Together, their accumulated tragedies are redrawing the map of the former Yugoslavia.

Aid officials estimate that at least 150,000 Serbs— perhaps as many as 200,000—have fled the Krajina region this month after Croat forces retook the territory they had lost in 1991. The vanquished Serbs left Krajina for two reasons. They harbored fears, grounded in history, of brutal treatment at the hands of a fiercely nationalist Croatia. And they were intimidated to leave by their own hard-line Serb leaders, who were determined to prove that Serbs and Croats cannot live together in peace. The refugees headed eastward into northern Bosnia, and some continued on into Serbia.

Along the way, many lashed out at the Croat and Muslim minorities living in Serb-controlled areas.

Seeking revenge for their own ordeal, the Serb refugees forced hundreds of innocent civilians to leave their homes in northern Bosnia and Serbia.

There have been hundreds of expulsions, each story differing only in its details. “They have attacked every Croat house here,” Anton Rakus said from behind barricaded doors and windows at his home in the town of Ruma in northern Serbia. The day before, he said, armed Krajina Serbs vaulted his high wall, beat him and held a knife to the throat of his 17-year-old daughter. The family was given two hours to pack and leave.

Instead, Rakus called the police. Federal Serb officers arrived and chased the refugees away. But the gang returned that night to throw stones at the Rakus house. Next, they set up camp right across the street. “We want to stay here—it’s our home,” said Rakus’s wife with nervous determination. “Our families have lived here for generations.” But faced with the menace across the street, she admitted that perhaps it would be wiser to accept an offer from another group of Serb refugees from Krajina. That group was busily knocking on doors in town with a proposal: give us the title to your home here in Ruma, and you can have the home we left behind in Krajina. The offer infuriated Anton Rakus. “Why should we leave?” he demanded of his wife. “And what,” he asked, “would we find there?”

The probable answer is nothing at all. Many areas of the Krajina are aflame. Crops, houses and churches are burning, part of a nasty Balkan ritual in which vestiges of the enemy’s former presence are systematically eradicated. “It is something normal to burn homes here,” said Tanja Tagirov, a human-rights lawyer who lived in the Krajina area as a child, as she surveyed newly smouldering ruins. Krajina was the battleground for the vicious Second World War struggle between Croat fascists, allied with Nazi Germany, and Serb partisans. Many of its towns and villages have been burned before. Now, the Croats have returned after four years of Serb occupation to discover that dozens of their Catholic churches have been razed. “They are still finishing the business of the last war,” Tagirov said. “And creating the grievances for the next one.”

Croat President Franjo Tudjman’s government has rejected aecusations that it indulged in ethnic cleansing in Krajina, arguing that the Serbs fled of their own accord. “The military operation was so rapid that any thought of deliberate expulsions is absurd,” said Croat Defense Minister Gojko Susak. The Croats are anxious to avoid comparisons to the Bosnian Serbs’ infamous record of mass executions and rapes during their own purification campaigns. But their goal has been the same—to create a state that is as ethnically pure as possible.

Ironically, international diplomats regard the new situation on the ground—despite its shaky moral foundations—as an opportunity to strike a lasting peace settlement. Last week’s fighting—a battle for control of a western Bosnian town and a determined attack by the Croats to push the Bosnian Serbs out of shelling range of the port city of Dubrovnik—was merely a deadly form of tinkering with the map. The summer’s fighting has already dramatically reduced the number of sticking points for any realignment of borders. There are now fewer “inconvenient” minority pockets. The Bosnian safe havens of Srebrenica and Zepa have fallen to the Serbs. Bihac, another UN-protected enclave, was liberated by this month’s Croat-Bosnian offensive.

That leaves two serious territorial disputes. Negotiators will wrestle over the future of Gorazde, another contentious UN safe haven in eastern Bosnia. The Bosnian government has sworn never to surrender Gorazde. But some analysts suggested last week that an American diplomatic push could convince the Bosnians to swap the safe haven for more land around Sarejevo, their capital. And the Serbs still occupy eastern Slavonia, once part of the Croat republic that Zagreb has vowed to recover. The American plan reportedly called for the Serbs to surrender sovereignty over eastern Slavonia, provided that the Serb population was given a high degree of local autonomy.

If that happens, UN troops and human rights officials would be called upon to monitor compliance. Otherwise, the UN peacekeeping mission in Croatia has become moot. “We have received a warning order to be prepared to repatriate to Canada,” said Lt.-Cmdr. Jeff Agnew, the Canadian Forces spokesman in Zagreb. The recall would bring home about 800 of the 2,096 Canadians stationed in the former Yugoslavia, a mission that Ottawa said has cost over $710 million since it began in March, 1992. But Foreign Affairs Minister André Ouellet said that Canadian troops will remain in Bosnia. Their mandate expires in November, and its renewal will be discussed at an Aug. 29 cabinet meeting.

Reform party critics last week reiterated their call for a complete Canadian pullout. And retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie told Maclean’s that Canada should participate in missions only when it has a hand in the decision-making. “I am offended that we are not part of the Contact Group,” MacKenzie said in reference to the fivenation body charged with finding a solution to the Balkan mess. Canadian officials said last week that American diplomats had hinted that Canada might, at last, be invited to join the group, along with Italy and Spain. “But it smells like an invitation just to open our chequebook for reconstruction projects,” said one suspicious Canadian diplomat.

3In any event, the real reconstruction will de| mand qualities that money cannot buy: a spirit of | tolerance, forgiveness and trust—and the brav| ery to return to former homes where “the other 1/5 guy” holds power. “Do we want to make his wish come true?” Raceta asked in his letter, imploring his mother not to give in to Tudjman’s plans for an ethnically pure Croatia. He added, ‘You have to come back and live here.” And despite the horrors and the hatred, there were signs that shared tragedy can make allies out of enemies. In the northern Serb village of Novi Banovci, every Croat family voluntarily took in a Serb family—albeit with the self-interest of avoiding expulsion. “We wanted to be human beings,” said Ines Susak. “God knows I understand what they have gone through.”

But compassion is still in short supply. “They did it to us,” said one defiant young Serb man standing outside a Croat house in Ruma, reducing the prevailing Balkan mind-set to its basics. “They deserve it.” He was surrounded by other Serbs, telling how they had run a gauntlet of taunting Croats who hurled stones and insults as the Serbs left their homes. “Of course they don’t deserve it,” a young woman said quietly. “Nobody deserves it. Not us. Not them. But where,” she asked, “can we go?”

BRUCE WALLACE

LOUISE BRANSON

WARREN CARAGATA