ZAGREB, CROATIA — WHEN Stjepan received a surprise draft notice from the Croatian Army in mid-December, he dutifully reported for service two weeks early, thinking he had been called to defend his country.
But last week the 26-year-old Croat found himself on a bus bound for the front lines in Bosnia-Herzegovina - forced to fight in a country where he has no allegiance and in which he has no future.
``Look,'' he says desperately, ``to me, Bosnia is another country. Why should I fight there?''
Stjepan, not his real name, comes from a long line of Croats. He was born in Bosnia but moved to Croatia more than six years ago, long before the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia. Now a student at Zagreb University, he has Croatian citizenship, a Croatian passport, and considers Zagreb his home.
Stjepan is one of hundreds of Croat males of Bosnian origin pressured by the Croatian government to join a ``volunteer'' brigade to fight in Bosnia. Of the estimated 800-1,000 that Stjepan said were at the Croatian Army barracks, at least half have already been sent to Bosnia. Stjepan's friend Marko (not his real name) was drafted along with Stjepan.
``Most of them didn't want to go,'' says Marko, also a student. ``The morale of the troops was 0.0 percent.''
Muslim-dominated Bosnian government forces have some 65,000 Croats, mostly civilians, surrounded in the strategic central Bosnian Lasva Valley. Faced with Muslim advances against their proxy militia in Bosnia - known as the HVO - the Croatian Army began rounding up the men in Croatia three weeks ago.
Directly intervening in Bosnia, however, could provoke action from the European Community and the United States. The international community has repeatedly warned Croatia that if it sends troops to Bosnia, it faces economic sanctions, similar to those which have economically devastated Serbia.
``We have, in a number of ways, warned the Croatian government and the Croatian military specifically on this subject,'' Madeleine Albright, US Ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters at a press conference in Zagreb yesterday. ``I can tell you that this is a subject that comes up frequently, is of great concern, and might in fact lead to sanctions if there is not some change in their behavior.''
Ms. Albright, the highest ranking US official to visit Croatia, arrived in Zagreb Monday - her first stop on a European tour. She said she would raise the issue with Croatian President Franjo Tudjman during her meeting with him today.
Croatia denies that it has regular Croatian soldiers in Bosnia, although diplomats and UN officials say Croatia has secretly sent in thousands of troops. By calling the new recruits volunteers, the Croatian government is apparently trying to avoid an international lashing.
Before boarding a bus to an unknown destination, the men in Stjepan's unit were asked by the Croatian Army to sign papers stating that they were voluntarily going to fight in Bosnia, Stjepan says.
Stjepan kept the faith. Having refused to sign along with many others in the camp, he believed the Croatian Army would never take them to Bosnia against their will. But when the bus finally reached the Bosnian border, Stjepan and Marko, realizing their plight, somehow managed to sneak away and return to Zagreb.
``We thought that because we hadn't signed the papers that we would be taken somewhere else,'' Stjepan says. ``Once we understood we were on our way to Bosnia we began looking for a way out.''
Bosnian Croats and Muslims fought as allies against the Serbs after Bosnia voted for independence from the former Yugoslavia in March 1992. Since then the Serbs have captured roughly 70 percent of Bosnia leaving Croats and Muslims in controls of the rest.
The Croat-Muslim alliance began to break down in November 1992, when Bosnian Croats ordered Bosnian government forces to come under their control, began discharging Muslims from their jobs and local Muslim leaders from their positions, and declared their own ministate in central and southwest Bosnia.
Muslim and Croat forces quickly began a fierce land grab. Muslim forces have seized six towns, sent thousands of refugees fleeing, and have an estimated 65,000 Croats besieged in several pockets in central Bosnia. Bosnian Croats have proclaimed the south-central city of Mostar their capital and have an estimated 65,000 mostly Muslim civilians trapped on the east side of the city.
Last week, Defense Minister Gojko Susak said the Croatian government may defy the threat of sanctions and officially send in regular Army troops in Bosnia to defend the Croats threatened there.
``If the interests of the Croat people in Bosnia-Herzegovina are threatened, Croatia will become involved directly to protect its own interests and the interests of the Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina,'' he said.
Meanwhile, Stjepan and Marko are now deserters afraid to go back to their classes and walk on the streets of Zagreb. They are both contemplating going back to the barracks to plead their case to authorities.
``We are thinking about going back, but certainly we will be treated as deserters now,'' Marko says. ``I don't know what will happen to us in the end.''