Serb Family Finds They Can't Go Home Again

Last week, for the first time in two years, a Serb family returned home to Krajina, the formerly Serb-controlled enclave recaptured by Croatia in 1995. Their homecoming was brief. Within hours, irate Croats - many themselves displaced during the war - encircled the home and forced them out of town.

United Nations officials - who one day earlier had hammered out the deal with Croatian authorities that let the family return home - were understandably frustrated at the failure of their first attempt to help reintegrate refugees displaced by the war.

"We can't de-occupy homes, reconstruct houses, or guarantee the safety of returning refugees," says one frustrated UN official. "We need the Croats to help us."

That need will become even more pressing in the near future: Eastern Slavonia, the lone remaining Serb-held region in Croatia, reverts to Croatia's authority after national elections April 13 and the withdrawal of the UN's transitional administration (UNTAES) July 15. The UN's civilian units and human rights monitors will stay until January.

Demilitarization of the ravaged region was the easy part, compared with the logistical nightmare that lies ahead. Some 80,000 Croats are impatient to return to this fertile, oil-rich province, while 50,000 of the 130,000-odd Serbs here want to head back to their ancestral farm lands in Krajina. Humanitarian groups privately worry that the population exchange and property disputes may reignite war.

Vukovar, the provincial capital of Eastern Slavonia, was one of the war's first casualties. In September 1991, the Yugoslav Army and rebel Serbs laid siege to the city, and within two months reduced it to rubble. Croatia says more than 5,000 people were killed, and at least 100,000 Croats and ethnic Hungarians fled the region.

UNTAES's presence has defused some of the tension. Borders are easier to cross, and there are fewer security forces on the streets. UNTAES has also facilitated the "psychological demilitarization" of society, whereby Serb and Croat neighbors and mixed families long separated can meet in designated areas or visit one another's homes.

Still, hatred runs deep. On Monday, several hundred Serbs in Vukovar pelted visiting Croat politicians with stones. Trans-border telephone threats are common.

Yet observers assume that any Serb guilty of war crimes has tiptoed to safer environs. To reassure the innocent, Croatia issued a blanket amnesty last year for all but 150 suspects. Still, many fear retribution. UNTAES officials say up to 5,000 Serbs left the area in recent months.

With the intransigence of Croat officials and scattered abuses already, there is growing sympathy within UNTAES for the Serbs. The agency, assigned the task of restoring the region's multi-ethnic composition, is urging the Serbs to stay and play by the rules. Local Serb leaders have agreed, and along with their constituents have begun to take Croatian citizenship in order to qualify for jobs and social benefits.

"We don't have any intent to fight militarily, just politically," said Milorad Visic, a leader of the Independent Democratic Serb Party. It is expected to win about one-third of Eastern Slavonia's 30 municipalities in the elections.

Serbs also have an ally in Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. Mr. Tudjman is desperate to lure foreign aid crucial for rebuilding his country, to appease the West, and to cement his legacy as the father of independent Croatia. A peaceful transition is needed to accomplish those goals. So, over the protests of compatriots who would prefer an ethnically pure state, Tudjman has begun to utter the things the international community has waited to hear.

"Those [Serbs] who do stay can rest assured that they will be protected by the Croatian authorities, that they will be able to live here in peace, with all civil, human and ethnic rights," he said in a speech to Croatian refugees March 26. "[Displaced Croats] should show their wisdom and be ready to extend their hand to Serbs not involved in war crimes."

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