About 300 members of Southern California's Serbian community gathered in front of the Federal Building in Westwood on Saturday to warn that the rights and lives of Serbian minorities may be jeopardized in the current struggles for independence in Yugoslavia.
The demonstrators had often conflicting views about whether the states of Slovenia and Croatia should be permitted to break free from the nation created from disparate peoples after World War I. They shared, however, concern that an independent Croatia might lead to atrocities similar to those that took place during World War II.
In 1941, invading Nazis set up a puppet regime of Croatian Ustashas that slaughtered at least 700,000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. Serbian royalist chetniks and Communist partisans exacted revenge later in the war by executing untold thousands of Ustashas.
While Serbs living in Serbia would thrive if Croatia becomes independent, minority communities of Serbs within Croatia would face the threat of renewed hostility from the Croatian majority, according to Blasko Paraklis, a spokesman for the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America.
"We came here to show our support for our fellow Serbs who are being oppressed by Croatian nationalists," Paraklis told the supportive demonstrators, many of whom wore the colorful folk dress of their homeland.
"The Serbian people will not allow another sacrifice of their people by the Croatians," he said. "God will not allow us to forget the Serbs, Jews and Gypsies who died in Croatian concentration camps."
Pacific Palisades painting contractor Rade Prtina conceded that with Slovenia and Croatia already having declared independence, the differences between Yugoslavia's diverse peoples are sharpening, and that there are no simple solutions to the problems of increasing unrest.
"This is a divorce," he said. "It's ugly. There's no living together anymore."
After listening to several speeches on the lawn in front of the building, the demonstrators marched back and forth on the sidewalks of Wilshire Boulevard, waving American and Serbian flags and brandishing placards with such slogans as "Serbs Want a Peaceful Resolution," "Croatian Nationalism Equals Genocide of Serbs" and "Support Oppressed Serbs in Croatia."
Several of the protesters complained that the media have unfairly described the Serbs as "hard-line Communists" and have tended to show them in a negative light while praising the Croatians and their independence bid.
"It is the Serbs who are democratic," said Mira Panajotovic, a schoolteacher.