Victimizing Victims In 'Former Krajina'

American and British diplomats are investigating a suspicious fire that nearly destroyed a local human rights office in the small Croatian town of Vrhovine. Mirjana Galo, the office director, works with the support of Oxfam and the European Union to distribute humanitarian assistance and promote conditions for the return of refugees. But lately the office has had to face down death threats, assault, and arson. In July the office was vandalized and set ablaze by opponents of refugee return. In October, Ms. Galo and journalist Boris Raseta were violently assaulted by a man who was released from police custody within hours. The latest fire left little trace of its origin.

Such incidents come as no surprise to relief agencies and human rights officials who work in a region that saw some of the most violent ethnic cleansing during the years of war in the former Yugoslavia. In August 1995, Croatian Army units launched "Operation Storm" to regain control of territory now known as "former Krajina." The offensive caused an exodus of 200,000 Serbs who fled their homes in fear of persecution. Thousands of elderly people - mostly women and many who were disabled - remained in the region as it was pillaged by a systematic campaign of looting, arson, and murder.

In the past year, international agencies have continued to work to improve conditions for the region's most vulnerable populations. Oxfam-supported groups furnish vital assistance including food, shelter, firewood, and medicines. They provide advice and legal support on laws pertaining to social and human rights, and they offer information to facilitate refugees' return.

None of this assistance targets beneficiaries by ethnicity, but it has nonetheless threatened extremists opposed to the reintegration of Croatian Serbs into once ethnically mixed areas. Acts of persecution and terror persist against community activists. Oxfam receives hundreds of reports each month describing looting, assault, and suspicious death.

In his August report to the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali said: "Reports continue to be received of persons who encounter hostility ... 61 percent are persons 60 years of age or more." Last summer an elderly Serb couple ran into such hostility: They were stabbed to death while their assailants' accomplices demolished their home with dynamite.

Such incidents are reported to the local police, Croatia's Helsinki committee for human rights, and the United Nations. The violence against Oxfam's Vrhovine center is "under investigation" by the Croatian Ministry of the Interior. But police so far have failed to arrest suspects, despite eyewitness statements, in the two prior attacks. One Vrhovine resident who wishes to remain anonymous was arrested and stripped of his identity papers when he attempted to report a basic crime. Victims of political persecution are understandably fearful to come forward with evidence.

Oxfam considers the pattern of violence a deliberate campaign against international efforts, in conjunction with the Croatian government, to relieve suffering and create conditions for refugee return. We ask concerned governments and agencies like Croatia's ombudsman for human rights to support the work of local activists like Mirjana Galo and unite around a clear message: Croatia's most vulnerable residents need the maximum protection of their government from extremist attacks.

The international community must also press the Croatian government to uphold international agreements it has signed to promote regional peace. A new resolve to defend the rights of all people, regardless of ethnicity, would be an appropriate way to honor Croatia's recent admission to the Council of Europe.

Lukas H. Haynes is regional representative for Oxfam UK/Ireland, a British relief and development organization that has been working in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 1993.

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