Forced Out of Their Homes in Croatia

Sometimes the Croatian Helsinki Committee can stop the outrage - sometimes it can't

By , Croatia.

AS much of the world prepared for the holiday season in late 1993, stark terror entered the lives of a woman and her daughters in Split, Croatia. Bursting into their apartment, several armed and uniformed persons demanded that they relinquish their home and all possessions. Afraid, but unwilling to comply, they were locked into a room. Prisoners in their own apartment for the next three weeks, all endured repeated threats of rape or death; one daughter was beaten.

In its most recent report to the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights in Vienna, the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (CHC), a nongovernmental organization based in Zagreb, finds this case to be but one among many instances when force was used by Croatian authorities to evict or attempt to evict legal residents from their apartments. Between Nov. 15 and the end of 1993, CHC investigated 24 cases of such forcible evictions - 14 in Zagreb, nine in the Dalmatian city of Split, and one in the eastern Croatian city of Vinkovci.

Inhabitants of these apartments are ethnically Serb or Muslim. They are either Croatian citizens or long-time residents of Croatia. Some were former members of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) - the erstwhile federal armed forces, before the breakup of Yugoslavia. The apartments were once owned by the JNA and became property of the Croatian Defense Ministry after the demise of the Yugoslav state. Many residents had lived in their apartments for decades prior to the eviction attempt; all resided there legally, with leases in their own names or those of their parents or a deceased spouse.

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These cases, along with other documented human rights violations such as forced conscription into military units, reveal a pattern of harassment, intimidation, and physical threats aimed at ethnic minorities in Croatia.

Evictions and attempted evictions are undertaken without legally executed court orders and almost always under threat of bodily harm. Croatian Army soldiers have, in some cases, broken into an apartment while the inhabitant is at work or out of town and simply moved a new tenant into the apartment - usually a soldier from the Ministry of Defense and his family. When the legal residents return, they are unable to enter because new locks have been installed.

In many instances, soldiers have forced their way into an apartment while the family is home and ordered them to evacuate immediately. These intrusions are often accompanied by physical violence; a number of residents have suffered injuries requiring treatment. Resistance has sometimes delayed eviction but has led to repeated intrusions into the apartment by Army personnel who continue to terrorize the inhabitants and threaten them with eventual eviction. When the family is evicted, its possessions have been confiscated by the new tenant, destroyed, or sold.

Little recourse exists when these flagrant human rights violations occur. Civilian and military police offer little help, and sometimes have actually provided assistance to the Army. Some evicted persons have lodged complaints through the judicial system. Others have protested to parliament or written formally to the Military Housing Committee and to the Ministry of Defense - to little avail.

Deprived of everything, those forced from their homes have had to move in with friends or, in many instances, flee Croatia. Those still threatened with eviction are afraid to leave their homes. As a result, some have been fired from their jobs. These people remain in fear for their safety and security.

SINCE beginning its work 10 months ago, CHC has received information that hundreds of such violations have occurred. For those evictions that take place without any notice, CHC can only document the aftermath. When notice is given, or word leaks out of a planned eviction, CHC staff assess the legal status of the resident and determine whether or not to intervene. After contacting other local human rights organizations and foreign and domestic journalists, CHC staff and members of the advisory board meet at the targeted apartment. There they advise the tenants of their rights. When the authorities arrive, they attempt to convince them of the illegality of their actions. After lengthy negotiations and phone calls to governmental representatives, including the office of the president and the Croatian Army High Command, such an effort occasionally succeeds. At other times, CHC efforts have not succeeded. After threats and intimidation by the military, residents have vacated their apartment.

For its efforts, CHC receives frequent threats. Its president, Ivan-Zvonimir Cicak, can be starkly fatalistic. To say that Mr. Cicak, a well-known personality in Croatia, is an unpopular figure with the Tudjman government is an understatement. He is regularly vilified as a traitor by the Croatian government and in public discourse. He has been threatened even while attending church. His children have received threats; several weeks ago the tires on his car were slashed. Ironically, the same man who was known during the communist period as one of the pioneers for an independent Croatia, and who was jailed three times - accused of nationalism - is now pilloried as treasonous.

CHC and Cicak have until recently operated a shoestring organization with three staff members crowded into one room in downtown Zagreb. Their success has been based on investigation, documentation, and publication of evidence - locally and abroad. Through such channels, CHC is sending notice to the Tudjman government that human rights abuses will be investigated and not tolerated.

Croatia is in the midst of a prolonged conflict; it is partially occupied. In a political hierarchy of needs, it seems that democracy and human rights rank well below the survival of the Croatian state and economic recovery. Among prominent Zagreb intellectuals, denial is prevalent. ``I know many Serbs in Zagreb'' said one leading professor ``Not one of them has been forced to leave their home or job.'' This is documentably untrue. Further, of course, Croats point to the record of Serb and Muslim atrocities elsewhere in the Yugoslav warfare and question the importance of defending ethnic Serbs and Muslims in Croatia from evictions.

In the emotion-laden atmosphere of ethnic wars in disintegrating states, the linchpins of democracy are constantly endangered. The CHC is winning a few skirmishes in the larger battle for a civil society. But it looks to be a long struggle. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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