Non-Serbs Are Forced From Vojvodina Region

Their homes are appropriated for arriving Serbian refugees

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

UNTIL two months ago, Milhailo Molnar and his family knew only the hard scrabble existence endured by generations of peasants in the ethnic melting pot of Serbia's agriculturally rich Vojvodina province.

But the violence and communal hatreds that destroyed Yugoslavia finally swept into this once sleepy farming town, transforming the Molnars' lives.

Like other non-Serbs, they have been tormented by what they claim is an officially-sanctioned campaign to force them to leave Serbia and turn their homes over to Serbs seeking refuge from war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and persecution in Croatia.

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"I'm not leaving. Where else can I go?" asked Mr. Molnar, an ethnic Hungarian whose wife is half Croatian and half Albanian. They have one son.

But diplomats and human rights activists say that unlike the Molnars, thousands of Croats, Hungarians, Slovaks, and other minorities have succumbed to bombings, gunfire, beatings, and death threats, and fled the most ethnically diverse Balkan region over the past year.

The exact number of departures from Vojvodina is unknown. But the exodus and a massive influx of Serbian refugees from the newly independent former Yugoslav republics has shattered the delicate comity that once bound its 340,000 Hungarians, 80,000 Croats, and thousands of other non-Serbs in peace with the 1.4 million local Serbs.

Serbia denies the allegations of forced expulsions, contending that only Croats have departed after voluntarily agreeing to "swap" their properties for those belonging to Serbs from Croatia.

"Those that leave get an address on the other side. They get twice as much [property]. The houses here are small," asserted Blagoje Maksimovic, a Serb from the Bosnian town of Bosanski Brod, who works as a volunteer in Hrtskovci's municipal hall.

"There were no threats. People came and just asked if they wanted to swap houses," he said.

Local Serbs and non-Serbs agreed that up to 80 percent of what was Hrtskovci's 3,600-strong Croatian majority has departed in the last two months along with large numbers of Hungarians. More than an estimated 3,000 Serbs, mostly refugees from Croatia, have taken their places, many through coerced house exchanges. Others merely broke into abandoned properties or the homes of residents working abroad. Allegations of purges of Serbs from Croatia are also widespread.

Non-Serbs claimed that one man in Hrtskovci, Milan Pivsic, was murdered for his house. His body was found by the police last month and several suspects were arrested. No official findings have been revealed in the case.

"We were expelled from here," Marco Fumic, who is half Serb and half Croat, said last week as he watched the contents of his small moldmaking shop being loaded onto a truck bound for Croatia's capital of Zagreb.

"I was given three days to leave my home or I would be killed," Mr. Fumic said. "That is why I decided to leave."

Fumic, whose wife is a Serb, said he was exchanging his home for that of a Serbian family in the Croatian town of Podravska Slatina. But the father of two said he did so only after weeks of duress.

"We are all losing here," he said. "[The Serbs coming here] feel they are losing. I feel I am losing." Serbia's sanction

He echoed charges that the expulsions have been sanctioned by Serbia's bankrupt Communist regime as it desperately seeks to settle up to 400,000 Christian Orthodox Serbs uprooted from Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The campaign has focused on the handful of farming communities in Vojvodina dominated by minorities, especially Croats, he and other non-Serbs contended.

Its executors, they said, are thugs of the ultra nationalist Serbian Radical Party, a paramilitary group nurtured by the regime and whose nationalist leader, Vojislav Seselj, advocates the expulsion of all non-Serbs from Serbia.

"This evil comes from a higher level. It would be a sin to say this is being done by local Serbs," said Edward Spanovic, the Roman Catholic priest of what was the 2,500-strong Croatian village of Novi Slankomen, about 20 miles from Hrtskovci.

"The pressure started here about this time last year with the throwing of grenades, fights, harassment. People decided to move and as long as they were moving at an acceptable rate, there were no more attacks," he said. "When it slowed down, the bombing would start again."

"There are now only about 150 to 200 Croats. Most of the young people have moved out. Mostly only old people are left," he said. "Between 500 and 600 to 1,000 Serbs have come in."

Fr. Spanovic himself has been under enormous pressure to depart as evidenced by bullet holes in his church and the surrounding wall.

The wall has also been dogged with Serbian nationalist symbols and graffiti that says, "Death to the Ustashi Priest," a reference to the Nazi-backed Croatian Ustashi fascists who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs during World War II.

In Hrtskovci, even local Serbs do not dispute that the expulsion campaign began there with a May 15 rally at which Mr. Seselj read a list of non-Serbs he said should be driven out for being "disloyal."

"I was among the first on the list," Fumic said. "I was denounced as an Ustashi fundamentalist."

"Most of the Croats leave when they get cornered with evidence that they are sympathizers of the politics of the HDZ," Hrtskovci Mayor Ostoja Sibincic said, referring to the Croatian Democratic Union of President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia.

Mr. Sibincic, a supporter of Seselj, who allegedly seized his post by force after the May 15 rally, said he decided to rename the town "Srboslavci."

Mr. Molnar said that several days after the rally, groups of men from outside the town began attacking the homes of non-Serbs.

"They were throwing bricks into our yard. In the end, I escaped through the garden to the police station. The police came back with me and all of those people ran away," he said. House attack

"For a few days, it was quiet. One day, we were working in the field," Molnar recounted from his modest dining room. "My wife was going to milk the cow. When she came in here, a huge knife was sticking in the table top."

"Those people were trying to get us out. They brought a contract and told me to sign. They told me I had a house waiting for me in Croatia and I had to go," Molnar said.

Juliana Molnar, Milhailo's wife, recently informed opposition leaders in Belgrade and human rights groups of the plight of the town's non-Serbs.

The case was given extensive publicity by opposition media, following which the regime despatched police reinforcements to Hrtskovci. Still, Mrs. Molnar said, the terror has continued.

"I am only a peasant," she said as she hawked watermelons on a busy roadside. "Whatever I plant grows in my land here. There is no future for me in Croatia."

"I don't know how we are going to stay here," she said. "But we are not going to leave."

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