SOMETHING approximating peace has come to Sector West, a 300-square-mile region of small villages southwest of Zagreb, Croatia, that was mostly flattened in fighting last December.
Only occasional mortar fire or paramilitary raids break the routine. Yet attitudes in Sector West make it a microcosm of the Croat-Serb enmities in this United Nations-held region and suggest that the calm will last only until spring. The Croats are building up arms caches to renew the fight when warmer weather returns, as the Serbs try to consolidate a corridor across the top of Bosnia to resupply Serb-occupied parts of Croatia.
A year ago Jelcko Ceranovic was one of 27 Croatian villagers fighting among the ruins of the tiny town of Lipic. He and seven others held off part of the Serb Army for 52 days, but not before both sides had gutted and leveled 20 little towns here. Today Mr. Ceranovic lives with his parents in the basement of what is left of their house - the top three floors are a blasted hulk - fortified with a wood stove to get them through the winter.
But Ceranovic and his compatriots are not thinking of the winter or its woes. They are thinking of fighting the Serbs again - and the sooner, they say, the better.
Most of the Croatian men in this town and throughout Croatia hold the blue-helmeted soldiers of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in low regard. Many Croats have been rearming during the UN presence, which they say has only helped Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic by creating implicit borders and allowing the Serb Army to withdraw and ethnically cleanse and occupy Bosnia. Croats on the street openly say the only way to regain their land is by force. As Ceranovic says: "What we have more than an ything now is the heart to fight."
A Croatian military officer from this region, speaking on condition of anonymity, elaborates: "We are cooperating with the UN for the time being. Officially we only will attack if we are attacked. But off the record this can be solved only with war." His words echo reports of a Croatian military buildup: "Since last year, our forces and equipment have increased 100-fold."
On the last day of February, the Croatian government is to decide whether to renew the mandate of the UN forces now keeping Serbs and Croats apart in the three UN-controlled areas of Croatia. Without UNPROFOR to keep the sides apart, war is expected to resume. Tensions seem near the breaking point in both the eastern and southern areas, unlike Sector West.
So far, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman has made it clear UNPROFOR will not be reinvited. But Western diplomats in Zagreb and a number of Croatian analysts are certain Mr. Tudjman is bluffing. They are convinced he is trying to push the UN into sending more troops and making progress on a stalled plan put forward by mediator Cyrus Vance to help resettle some of the 400,000 Croatians displaced this year.
One UN official states: "The Security Council put us here, and it will be the Security Council that will kick us out."
Croatian political columnist Davor Glavas finds Tudjman's "poker game" dangerous, saying the president is whipping up expectations among Croats in the countryside who are ready to fight. He says the Serb Army may be undermanned, but it still has the ability to launch Soviet-made Scud missiles on cities like Zagreb, Zadar, and Split.
THE main Serb-held town in Sector West, Okucani, can be reached only by UN vehicle, past miles of houses reduced to rubble.
In an effort to solidify their territorial acquisitions of last year, the Serbs have proclaimed this region the autonomous Republic of Krajina, though the UN does not recognize it as such and takes down any signs with "Krajina" in the title. Nonetheless local officials say they are linked through an elected parliament to two other "autonomous Serb republics," one centered in the Croatian town of Knin and the other in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka.
But conditions in Okucani are bleak and it appears the town would be imperiled if the UN left. A single bridge across the Sava River links it to the Bosnian Serb town of Bosanska Gradiska. The Serbs are supposed to resupply Okucani, but UNPROFOR guards on the bridge say only one truck with bread comes to Okucani from Bosnia every day - meaning the Serb supply lines across Bosnia are not yet established.
Villagers say electricity comes once every four days for a few hours. Phone lines have been cut and food is scarce. On a recent market day mostly sacks of potatoes, corn, and onions were visible.
Still the local Serb minister of information, Dusko Ecimovic, is undaunted. He is sure UN forces will "stay at least 10 years. This war is finished, I think." If not, he says, a military pact among Serb autonomous republics, signed Oct. 31 in the Bosnian city of Prijedor, would come into effect. "Any attack on one of us is an attack on us all."
Mr. Ecimovic does not say, however, how his region will get through the winter. He claims Okucani has a 30,000-gallon oil tank, but admits there is no oil. Eventually, electricity will come to the region from a dam hundreds of miles away, he asserts.
But one local official, listening to Ecimovic's claims, later expresses his doubts. He says the situation of the families of Okucani, as winter settles, is dire.