Odd-Couple Cops Share a Tough Beat in Balkans

If Serbs and Croats can work together, can they also learn to live together?

On an April afternoon, a pair of police officers stoically walk their beat in downtown Vukovar, as hushed as their eerie surroundings. A twisted strip of corrugated metal dangles from a rooftop, clanging in the wind as it has since late 1991, when the yellow-brick building was pounded by mortars.

In fact, all the once-elegant Baroque structures along the officers' beat are disfigured, a result of shelling from Serb positions just across the Danube River.

But these partners choose not to discuss the war that once raged here. The issue is still too raw. Vitomir Jovkovic, a Serb, and Damir Haluska, a Croat, are members of the UN-monitored Transitional Police Force (TPF). They're here not only to keep order, but to pave the way for a return to a peaceful, multiethnic society. The area reverts from Serb to Croatian authority July 16.

Serb and Croat police officers were the first to fight when Yugoslavia's civil war broke out six years ago. Their cooperative work here now is nothing short of a bold experiment in Balkan peace.

"It's pointless to search for the truth [about the war], because we have to work together," says Mr. Jovkovic diplomatically, as Mr. Haluska nods. "We're trying to correct the political mistakes that were made, because we've suffered the most."

The savage three-month siege of Vukovar - coming on the heels of Croatia's secession from the former Yugoslavia in June 1991 - turned the city into a virtual ghost town. As many as 10,000 were reportedly killed, and some 100,000 Croats and ethnic Hungarians fled the region, known as Eastern Slavonia.

The reason these two cops and ethnic rivals have been able to coexist professionally for nine months - while remaining deeply distrustful of each other - is that they've struck common ground. Each says his people were pawns of the nationalist propaganda emanating from Zagreb and Belgrade, the Croatian and Serbian capitals, respectively.

"Politics dragged us into war," says Haluska, a rookie. "And if it had been up to us, we wouldn't have had it."

As a professional operation, TPF has far to go. Fewer than one-third of the officers have police experience, and it shows. They take a hands-off approach to the entrenched crime syndicates, the well-armed populace, and even reckless motorists.

There are also allegations of internal corruption. And the TPF's track record in perhaps the most crucial aspect of their work, riot control, has been poor.

Still, the TPF supervisors from Western countries are elated. They say the TPF presence is symbolic. The officers will serve as role models for reconciliation and lay a cornerstone for the development of a civil society. Earlier this month, the TPF architects began devising a similar program for Sarajevo.

"They haven't killed each other," says Steve Hargrove, a TPF instructor and retired police captain from Montgomery County, Md. "And that's what we were told would happen."

Six years ago, Croat and rebel Serb police officers clashed near here. Slavonia was immediately polarized.

Today, some 80,000 refugees, mostly Croats, are waiting to return to Eastern Slavonia. Meanwhile, of the 130,000 or so current inhabitants, most of whom are Serb, about 50,000 are refugees expelled from Bosnia or elsewhere in Croatia. They'd also like a chance to head back home.

The United Nations is overseeing the reintegration. But officials worry that extremists on both sides might derail the process, if not spark renewed fighting.

To help restitch the patchwork, the UN called on the International Criminal Investigation Training Assistance Program to train a police force to be eventually integrated into the Croatian national police force.

The Serbs and Croats submitted candidates for initial training, held last May in Budapest, Hungary. After a weeding-out of suspected war criminals, 150 were picked from each side.

The two groups initially refused to acknowledge each other, though they were required to sit side by side during lectures on human rights, human dignity, and community policing. Further training seminars were held in Croatia. A total of 2,000 men have now completed the course. The US State Department picked up the $1.5 million tab for the training and the TPF's spartan, navy-blue uniforms. The Croatian government covers salaries and equipment, like their Russian-made Lada patrol cars.

TPF began operations last July amid great apprehension on all sides.

Some officers, despite earlier agreements, were reluctant to work joint patrols. Croat officers refused to work overnight, fearing for their safety. Relations have since thawed somewhat, though after-hours socializing and interethnic friendships are rare.

"The trauma will be kept deep inside and will not be easy to get rid of," says Jovkovic, a former bricklayer. If asked by a Croat colleague what role he played during the conflict, Jovkovic says he responds: "The same as you. We could either leave or participate."

Outside the precinct, none of the officers wears a name tag, which prevents the public from easily identifying them by ethnic group. Haluska says he steers clear of political discussion or provocation. His policy toward the locals is: "If I'm good to them, they'll be good to me."

When Zagreb reasserts its authority, Haluska expects disgruntled Serbs to leave. For those who stay, "The law here will be for everyone and will guarantee that all are treated equally." Besides, he ventures, "everyone will be more worried about feeding their families than about politics or revenge."

Yet confrontations could arise, and TPF responses so far have been cause for concern. Consider March 31.

In Vukovar's outdoor market, word quickly spread that a forum for Croatian politicians, in advance of the April 13 local elections, was being held at the nearby hotel. Over the course of two hours, a crowd of several hundred Serbs began to gather in front of the hotel. They were watched warily by some 50 Croat and Serb TPF, about 20 UN Civilian Police, and the Russian crews of two UN armored personnel carriers.

When the politicians emerged, the crowd hurled insults, eggs, and rocks. Only then did the TPF - lacking helmets, shields, or batons - form a ring around the politicians, who then had to be escorted out by the Russians.

TPF officers face a struggle. "If I go against a Serb, he'll threaten me and call me a Croat fascist," Haluska says. "If I go against a Croat, he'll threaten me and call me a traitor." The public, too, is skeptical. "If somebody comes to my house and threatens me, I'll expect a Croat police officer to protect me," says Slobodanka Okovacki, a Serb. "But how will I know if their nationality will be more important to them than their job?"

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