Mijana Vojnović stood beside the heavily defended sandbag barrier blocking the road to her Croatian village, wondering aloud if marauding Serbian guerrillas would attack and if she might be forced to shoot her ex-husband. Four years ago, Mirjana said, she and Zeljko Vojnović, a Serb, were newly married and deeply in love. Then, in 1989, amid rising ethnic unrest that had begun to divide families and tear at the Yugoslav federation, their marriage collapsed.
Now, Miijana and her Croatian comrades, armed with Red Flag automatic weapons, are defending the dusty village behind them. Zeljko Vojnovic has joined Serbian forces roaming the nearby Croatian countryside. And if the father of her baby is part of an assault on her barricade, said 24-year-old Mirjana Vojnovic, she will not hesitate to shoot him. Displaying no emotion, she added: “It is better that I shoot him than that he shoots me.”
With that, she reflected the depth of long-simmering ethnic hostility that turned to bloodshed after the republics of Slovenia and Croatia broke with the Yugoslav central government on June 25 and declared their independence.
Croatia’s 4.6 million inhabitants include 600,000 Serbs who oppose Croatian inde¿ pendence and have set up £ their own autonomous re§ gions. By late last week, pitched battles, firebombings and assassinations had claimed an estimated 300 lives, left thousands homeless and wrecked the Yugoslav economy. And although the two sides agreed to a ceasefire as European Community foreign ministers searched for a peace formula, authorities said that they were skeptical that the truce would last. Said one Western diplomat, speaking anonymously: “The best we can hope for is a short pause before the fighting begins again.” For Mirjana Vojnovic and tens of thousands of other Croats and Serbs engulfed and embittered by the renewal of an age-old blood feud, the fighting has not really stopped since June. Vojnovic and her Croatian irregulars behave as
though an attack were imminent. They crouch behind the barricade, the muzzles of their automatic weapons poking through ports in the sandbags. Vojnovic, wearing combat fatigues, scanned the road in the direction from which the Serbs might come and nodded in satisfaction. The road is strewn with obstacles—logs, piles of scrap metal and abandoned trucks.
Most of the inhabitants have long since fled from the village because, situated on the edge of the Serb-dominated region of Krajina in western Croatia, it is a likely target.
As she watched the road, Vojnovic explained to Maclean ’s that Serbs and Croats once were friends in the Yugoslavia of Josip Broz Tito, the Second World War Communist resistance leader who welded six fractious republics into a nation and served as its president until his death 11 years ago. “Our parents still remembered the war and how the Serbs massacred thousands of Croats,” she said, “but to us it was ancient history.” She says that she met
Zeljko Vojnovic soon after she left school. “It was love at first sight, if you believe in that,” she said. She smiled faintly and brushed her blond hair away from her eyes. “He was handsome. We had the same ideas about life. I thought, yes, this is it.”
But the dreams and the love were shortlived. The Vojnovics moved in with his parents, caught up in the nationalism of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. “They never called me by my name, I was just ‘she’ and treated like an unwanted cat that just hangs around,” Vojnovic said. “They kept having conversations about Croat massacres of Serbs during the war, all as if I was a piece of furniture with no feelings. They hated me and I grew to hate them.” After two years, she moved out and went to live with her mother. Her husband followed, but the reconciliation did not work
and he left after two months. A few weeks later, she discovered that she was pregnant. Now, her mother cares for her 13-month-old son, and Miijana Vojnovic, holding an assault rifle, awaits Serbian attackers who may include her son’s father.
She may not have long to wait. Smoke still rises from burning buildings in neighboring Glina. The village was overwhelmed by units of the well-equipped, 12,000-man rebel army recruited from among Croatia’s Serbian minority and trained by a boastful soldier of fortune who calls himself Capt. Dragan. A native-born Serb whose real name is believed to be Daniel Pavic,
36-year-old Dragan is constantly on the move among the 15 camps from which his forces launch their attacks. He wears full combat uniform and designer sunglasses, and carries an Israeli-made Uzi submachine-gun. The Serbian press has already cloaked him in a mythology that he enhances by refusing to talk about his past, although he poses for photographs holding a Croatian skull and his black swagger stick. According to press reports, Dragan was raised in Australia—he speaks English with an Australian accent—and fought in Africa, Argentina and the Falkland Islands. Some claim that he once had ties with the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.
Although Dragan evades questions about his background and how he became a central figure in Yugoslavia’s civil struggle, he talks expansively about his past exploits. In an interview with Maclean’s on a Krajina hillside, he insisted that he has captured several towns without losing a single man in his campaign to “make the Croatian politicians capitulate” by surrendering nearly one-third of their land to the Serbian rebels. Dragan’s original stronghold was the Serb-dominated Krajina town of Knin, and he obviously relishes having newspapers call him the “Rambo from Knin.” It was perhaps inevitable that his men would become known as the “Kninja.” Serbian leader Milosevic, says Dragan, is an inspiration for his troops, but Dragan turned aside questions about how much assistance he is receiving from Serbia itself. However, he added that elements of the Yugoslav federal army and “some people from the Serbian government” were providing help.
Still, the measure of this war, like all others, lies not in the posturing of commanders but in the plight of civilians caught in the middle. Already, the Croats have been driven from nearly half the lands in which Serbs were the majority. But thousands of Serbs are leaving Croatian-dominated cities, including Karlovac, 50 km southwest of the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Last week, anti-tank grenades that were fired from passing cars destroyed two restaurants in Karlovac, and three patrolling policemen were shot to death.
The reawakening of ancient antagonisms that has driven Yugoslavs to begin killing one another is also imperilling thousands of families who have not picked up a gun. One Belgrade couple—he is Serbian and she is Croatian— talked to Maclean ’son condition that only their first names be used. Zoran, the 31-year-old husband, said that he avoids taking his wife, Slobodanka, to the homes of Serbian friends. “Everyone behaves awkwardly when she is around,” said Zoran. “Our two sons come home from school talking all sorts of Serbian nationalism. It’s pressure, and yes, of course, it’s having an effect on our marriage.” Seven weeks of fierce ethnic struggle have destroyed scores of lives and communities. But it is the intractable hatred behind the violence that may destroy the nation.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.