IN a small office in downtown Belgrade, a dedicated few Serbian peace activists are engaged in a Herculean attempt to separate fact from fiction.Among other projects, volunteers for the Center for Anti-War Activities are trying to catalogue a growing avalanche of allegations of human rights abuses and atrocities pouring out of the Serb-Croat conflict. The task is formidable and hazardous in the maelstrom of nationalism and historic hatreds fed by the state-run propaganda machines that condemn opponents of the war as "traitors." Well-dressed thugs invaded and vandalized the center's office Nov. 18. Belgrade police blamed an extreme Serbian nationalist group, but many critics of Serbia's regime believe the attack was officially sanctioned. Still, the students, intellectuals, and liberal politicians who run the center are determined to continue their work, and are now trying to organize an international conference of human rights groups in Geneva to highlight what experts agree is a major tragedy that is only getting worse. "We are making a register of the cases mentioned in the newspapers. We are also compiling a list of possible witnesses," said veteran human rights attorney Tanja Petovar, the head of Yugoslavia's chapter of the International Helsinki Federation, and a driving force behind the center.
Victims refuse to testify But Ms. Petovar, other human rights activists, and Western diplomats who are also trying to delve into the tangled web of truths and lies admit they face numerous obstacles that make their task frustrating and difficult. Ms. Petovar said she hopes to persuade victims of human rights abuses to testify at the Geneva conference. So, far, however, none have agreed. "No one is willing to testify. They are too frightened," said Violetta, a student volunteer who asked that her last name not be published. "They have seen terrible pictures of violence on television and they do not want to end up victims." There is no doubt both sides have abused human rights, including mistreating, torturing, and killing civilians. They have also hit numerous civilian targets, with the most savage attacks staged by the Serb-dominated federal military and its undiscipled extreme nationalist guerrilla allies on Croatia's eastern town of Vukovar and southern Adriatic resort of Dubrovnik. The ethnic armies claim they are following international conventions on the treatment of war prisoners. But human rights experts are highly skeptical, pointing out that the whereabouts and conditions of thousands of Croatian fighters who surrendered in Vukovar are still unknown. Combatants have also plundered private property. But most looting has almost certainly been committed by members of Serbian forces, who are frequently seen driving cars without license plates that were "liberated" from Croatia. It is also clear that Croatian and Serbian fighters are guilty of atrocities, although the scope and number of such incidents are unknown because impartial investigators have been unable to enter combat zones. On Nov. 25, the London-based Amnesty International human rights organization issued an appeal for an end to attacks on civilian targets in which it said that despite the problems in collecting information, there had been several well-documented incidents. Among these, it said, were the slayings by a special unit of the Croatian police force of Karlovac of 13 federal Army officers and reservists who had surrendered, and the killings in the village of Cetekovac by Serbian irregulars of more than 20 Croatian civilians, including six elderly people. "What is clear is that people not involved in the fighting are being arbitrarily and deliberately killed or tortured, and that these outrages must be stopped," Amnesty International said.
Disinformation effort In addition to the reluctance of witnesses to testify, human rights activists and Western diplomats said another major hurdle was the distorted reports and orchestrated untruths spread by officials and state-controlled media. Both sides have repeatedly aired charges of brutality by their enemies in order to maintain the ethnic hatreds on which the authoritarian Croatian and Serbian regimes depend for survival. In a recent example, state-run Serbian media have continued to report as fact a story retracted by a Western news agency of a massacre of 41 Serbian children by Croatian fighters near Vukovar as it fell to Serbian forces. State-run television in Zagreb and Belgrade broadcast daily horrifying pictures of what they claim are victims of atrocities, and the Croatian government produced a slick videotape narrated by American actor Martin Sheen that purports to document Serbian outrages. Serbia's media has strived for greater impact by exploiting still-strong memories among Serbs of the Croatian Ustashi, Nazi-installed ultra-nationalists who slaughtered thousands of Christian Orthodox Serbs during World War II in a bid to create a Roman Catholic state.
Fictional reports But human rights activists and Western diplomats say that while scattered outrages have likely occurred, the most horrific reports are largely fictional, authored by professional propagandists. "I have information that things have been less brutal than has been said in the mass media," said Petovar. "The only aim is to increase hatred and the brutal instincts of both sides because they live on that." Other major problems, she and other experts said, are the sheer volume of allegations and the refusal by the Serbian and Croatian regimes to cooperate with independent rights investigators. "It's actually gone beyond the ability of anyone to keep track of every single incident that is reported," said a Western diplomat. The Center for Anti-War Activities and foreign embassies are not the only ones investigating rights abuses. The International Committee of the Red Cross is beginning to look into disappearances and the 36-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe is moving ahead with plans to send a human-rights mission to Yugoslavia. But experts agree that it will take considerable time, a lasting cease-fire, and a huge effort to draw an accurate picture.