SPECIAL REPORT

GUNS OF AUTUMN

NEIGHBORS ARE KILLING NEIGHBORS IN YUGOSLAVIA'S VICIOUS ETHNIC CONFLICT

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 7 1991
SPECIAL REPORT

GUNS OF AUTUMN

NEIGHBORS ARE KILLING NEIGHBORS IN YUGOSLAVIA'S VICIOUS ETHNIC CONFLICT

ANDREW PHILLIPS October 7 1991

GUNS OF AUTUMN

SPECIAL REPORT

NEIGHBORS ARE KILLING NEIGHBORS IN YUGOSLAVIA'S VICIOUS ETHNIC CONFLICT

Kata Jagić had plenty of company last week. A stooped Croatian woman of 74, she bustled about the courtyard of her ramshackle wooden house serving tiny cups of strong coffee to the strange new guests lounging outside. They were members of Croatia’s national guard, a dozen tense young men cradling Kalashnikov assault rifles, who had taken over Jagic’s house because Yugoslavia’s civil war had suddenly moved to her doorstep. Only 200 m down the road was a bridge over the Kupa river, the new front line formed between Croatian militiamen and the Serbian forces arrayed against them. Jagic’s house had already been caught in the cross fire; mortar fragments pockmarked the outside walls, and a stray bullet through the kitchen window had lodged in the refrigerator door. She pointed out the battle scars with the eagerness of someone suddenly thrust into the glare of attention, but despite a lull last week in the fighting that has raged through Croatia since June, her message was more sombre. “I am afraid we have gone beyond the point of no return,” she said. ‘‘How can we live together now?”

The civil war, which involves hundreds of Canadian volunteers, began after Croatia declared independence in June and its Serbian minority rebelled. A new ceasefire last week succeeded in at least keeping the bloodshed to a minimum, and diplomats expressed some hope that European Community-organized peace talks might make progress. That optimism was fuelled by signs that a more equal

balance of power had been established in the war. After weeks of helping Serbian guerrillas force the ill-equipped Croatian militia to give up more and more territory, Yugoslavia’s federal army appeared to falter. It abandoned some bases in eastern Croatia and left tons of weapons behind. Serbian newspapers reported that the army was reeling because of disorganization at the top and desertions among reserve troops. A leading Belgrade paper, Borba (Struggle), spoke of “a complete lack of confidence in the officer corps and a feeling among reservists that this is not their war.”

Success: Those reports and the relative success of the new ceasefire calmed concerns that the army might be preparing an all-out offensive against Croatia and its capital, Zagreb. But even if the Yugoslavs avoid a fullscale military conflict, there were no signs that they could achieve anything approaching a real peace. Weeks of bitter bloodletting have created a climate of hatred that has its own inexorable momentum. Villages, towns and political parties have armed themselves, creating a poisonous network of rival militias. Even the most optimistic analysts in Croatia acknowledge that if the republic eventually wins its

fight for independence, it could still face years of guerrilla warfare with Serbian rebels—a persistent Middle East-style destabilization that only recently seemed unthinkable in Central Europe.

That situation was evident last week in and around the scraggly village of Brest, where Jagic lives. Brest is only half a mile from the larger town of Petrinja, just across the swiftflowing Kupa river that irrigates the rich cornfields of central Croatia. In normal times, the Kupa is a playground for urbanites from Zagreb, 56 km to the north, who have built summer homes along its banks. Now, Serbian guerrillas and the Yugoslav army have seized control of Petrinja and pushed the young Croatian militiamen across the river to Brest—in an uneasy standoff that has created intense bitterness. Thousands of Croats have fled their bombed-out homes in Petrinja; now, they cannot return, and they trade unverifiable rumors that Serbs are looting their abandoned houses and businesses.

On the side of the main road to Zagreb last week, 75 Croatian men from Petrinja were lining up in the sunshine to join what they called

a “defence battalion” for their town. A motley collection of farmers and tradesmen, they appeared more intent on attack than defence, and were eager to get their hands on the rifles and grenades promised to them by the battalion’s organizers. Kata Jagic’s 47-year-old son, Dragutin, who owns three houses in Petrinja, was among them. Like dozens of others, he described how he had grown up with Serbian friends and neighbors and still could not believe that he might have to fight them to win back his home. “You work alongside them, you get drunk with them, and now this,” he said. “I don’t think anyone has really accepted what it means.” Still, he said, he was ready to kill if necessary. He added: “You can’t lie down and lose everything you’ve built up.”

Wounds: The personal, emotional wounds run deep even for many whose own families and property are so far unscathed. Vladan Svacov, a professor of drama at the University of Zagreb, has owned a small summer house in Brest for more than 20 years. Last week, he checked it for damage. There was none, but the 16th-century village church, St. Barbara’s, had been shattered by a mortar round through the

roof. Svacov, 60, could not contain his emotion. “Both my sons were baptized here,” he whispered in a husky voice, before turning quickly away. Later, he recalled that his daughter, Branka, used to play as a child in the Kupa river. Now 30, she was back on the river last week with a boat ready to take Croatian militiamen across to safety if they suddenly had to abandon vulnerable positions on the other side. A friend had given her a gun for protection, said Svacov—a 9-mm Beretta pistol.

The new bitterness feeds on a history of mutual suspicion that boils over at the slightest excuse. Most Croats speak of living peacefully for decades alongside Serbs, who comprise about 13 per cent of Croatia’s 4.6-million population. But at the same time, even such sophisticated urban intellectuals as Vladan Svacov are quick to invoke a string of ethnic stereotypes to explain away the conflict. From the Croatians’ perspective, Serbs have been conditioned by the Eastern influences of the Orthodox Church and centuries of Turkish occupation, while Catholic Croatia is the natural defender of Western values. “They have the typically Turkish mentality,” Svacov burst out. “They don’t

ANALYSTS FEAR A PERSISTENT MIDDLE EAST-STYLE DESTABILIZATION

work, just steal from someone else.”

In the Communist era, another factor fuelled Croatian resentment. Because of the leading role of Serbs in the Communist partisan campaign against German occupation during the Second World War, they held a disproportionately high share of posts in Communist regime: the party, police and army. As a result, Croatian prejudice against Serbs is enmeshed with their powerful anti-Communist feelings.

Serbs have their own stereotypes of Croats

and their own list of grievances. They vividly remember the murderous record of Adolf Hitler’s puppet government in Croatia between 1941 and 1945, which formed a separate Croatian state. Led by the fascist Ustasha (literally, “rising up”) movement, the wartime regime killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Jews. In turn, Serbian resistance fighters, known as Chetniks, killed tens of thousands of Croats.

Clumsy: While mustering support for independence, Croatia’s new government, led by President Franjo Tudjman, clumsily adopted nationalist rhetoric and symbols that aroused intense fears among the republic’s Serbian minority. Chief among them is Croatia’s new flag, which features the red-and-white checkered shield also brandished by the Ustasha regime. And, say moderate Serbs in Croatia, the government did not offer strong enough guarantees of

Serbian rights in an independent Croatia.

As a result, when Croatia declared independence on June 25, Serbs in ethnically mixed areas organized paramilitary forces and fought to establish control over areas with large Serbian populations. Serbia’s nationalist president, Slobodan Milosevic, swiftly labelled the new Croatian government as “fascist” and gave his support to the rebels. The federal army, most of whose senior officers are Serbs, effectively backed them as well, seizing control of about a

third of Croatia’s territory. And once the fighting began, it quickly turned vicious, with each side claiming that the other was committing atrocities. News media on both sides have prominently reported unverified stories of mutilations and massacres (page 48).

The result is a cycle of paranoia, rumor and violence that shows no signs of ending. Perhaps most worrying is the flood of arms into Croatia that may keep the conflict boiling even if the politicians eventually manage to work out a settlement. While towns and villages arm themselves, political groups also are stocking weapons. The extremist Croatian Party of Rights, for one, has organized and armed its own paramilitary force with distinctive red berets and shoulder badges.

Its leaders claim to have 10,000 men under arms, although the actual number is almost

certainly closer to 1,000. The party has branches among Croatian expatriates, and its leaders acknowledge collecting money for guns among its Canadian members. “We have machine guns, anti-aircraft rockets, anti-tank weapons, you name it,” boasted Milan'Vukovic, a 35-year-old Canadian citizen who is the chief aide to Dobrislav Paraga, the party’s 30year-old leader. Added Vukovic: “The government has failed to defend Croatia, so people are taking it into their own hands.”

Conflict: Vukovic is just one of many Croatian-Canadians involved in the republic’s conflict with Belgrade. They include the defence minister, Gojko Susak, who left behind an interior design business in Ottawa to go to Croatia, as well as hundreds of others who have returned to do everything from joining the

Croatian national guard to helping journalists cover the conflict. Vukovic himself spent 12 years in Toronto, attending the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto, before moving to Los Angeles to compose advertising jingles.

He travelled to Zagreb in June to work with Paraga’s party, and he says that Canadian supporters regularly send money to buy weapons. “They are on the phone to their relatives in Croatia, who say there are tanks outside their houses,” he said inside the party’s heavily guarded headquarters in Zagreb. “So they call us and say they want those villages defended. That means collecting money to buy weapons and training people to use them.”

The Party of Rights’ influence is still small. But the presence of its militiamen on the streets of Zagreb, together with regular na-

tional guardsmen and black-suited volunteers of another irregular group, the so-called Black Legion, gives the city an air of Beirut crossed with gangland-era Chicago. Paraga does not flinch from the comparison. Asked if arming his own party members might not accelerate Lebanese-style chaos in Croatia, he replied: “We already have Lebanon here—and it will be even more terrible and bloody.”

Death: That opinion was reinforced on the night of Sept. 21, when a policeman machine-gunned party VicePresident Ante Paradzik to death at a roadblock in Zagreb. Government spokesmen say that his car ran the roadblock; party officials say that the government assassinated their vice-president because they oppose the way in which Tudjman is conducting the war with Belgrade. In the backseat was another Croatian-Canadian, Ivan Orsanic,

52, of Mississauga, Ont. Orsanic, head of the party’s Toronto branch, travelled to Croatia to deliver $2 million worth of food and clothing for refugees, but he denied collecting money for guns.

In that supercharged atmosphere, discussions of -

moderation and compromise seem almost futile. But there are voices calling for a reconciliation between the warring communities. Milorad Pupovac, a 36-year-old professor of linguistics at the University of Zagreb, is a leader of the Serbian Democratic Forum, a group attempting to bridge the gap. Most Serbs in Croatia, he points out, do not live in areas that could be sliced away from the republic, as advocated by

Serbian militants. Instead, they live in large towns and cities like Zagreb. “No type of terroritorial separation is possible,” said Pupovac. “We live side by side on the same street in the same buildings. So there must be an overall political settlement that guarantees rights to Serbs.”

Pupovac criticizes Croatia’s government for brushing aside minority rights in its drive for

independence. But he puts most of the blame for the outbreak of violence firmly on the side of the Serbian leader, Milosevic. By whipping up Serbian nationalism, Pupovac said, and by pressing for a so-called greater Serbia that would include predominantly Serbian areas of other Yugoslav republics, Milosevic bears the main responsibility for unleashing the forces of ethnic hatred that are tearing the country

apart. And most vulnerable, the professor added, are the Serbs of Croatia. “Milosevic is no friend of ours,” he said.

But even Pupovac acknowledged that it is almost impossible to discuss political solutions with a war still raging. He said that police have threatened and harassed him and other Serbian leaders in Croatia even though they deny any connection with the guerrillas fighting in the so-called disputed areas. Thousands of other Serbs in Zagreb, who number about 100,000 of the city’s 850,000 people, have left the capital, fearing a violent backlash against them. “Things have gone too far now,” said Pupovac. “We have to hope that feelings cool and we can return to rationality.”

But that will take time, and there is little available to reach a solution that would prevent even more bloodshed. Last week, with the latest ceasefire in place, representatives of all Yugoslavia’s disputing parties agreed at an EC sponsored conference in The $ Hague to study long-term so§ lutions to relations among the x country’s republics and the rights of ethnic minorities.

But those discussions could be

abandoned as early as Oct. 7, the expiration date of a three-month moratorium on declarations of independence by Croatia and another breakaway republic, Slovenia. If either republic decides to re-invoke its declaration and walk away from the talks, it could well provide the spark that reignites the conflict.

ANDREW PHILLIPS in Brest