YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Serbian Refugees Uneasy in the Role of Occupiers : Yugoslavia: Thousands are installed in 'liberated' Croatian homes in a bid by Belgrade to solidify its hold.


BELI MANASTIR, Croatia — From the toy dump trucks and stuffed animals that her own son now plays with, Branka Balatinac can tell that the spacious house she occupies was once home to another small boy.

The two-story stucco villa was the property of a Croatian family driven out in September, when the Yugoslav army tanks rolled in.

Uncomfortable with the constant reminders that this home is not really hers, Balatinac has packed up the shoes, clothes and mementos of the former occupants and stashed them on top of a wardrobe, out of sight.

But she eats off their dishes and sleeps on their sheets and, now that it is frosty December, she has taken to wearing the last homemaker's stylish black winter coat.

"I feel terrible being here," the 33-year-old refugee wailed, smearing aside tears of embarrassment. "I feel like the worst kind of person having to do this, living in someone else's house. But I left my own home with nothing but the clothes on my back."

Serbian militants who have "liberated" this town and others across a wide swath of eastern Croatia have already billeted nearly 5,000 Serbian refugees in the homes of Croats who were confronted with the choice of taking on the army or taking flight.

The resettlement plan, devised in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, is the first step toward an eventual land exchange and forced migration to create an ethnically "pure" Serbian region to replace the mixed communities of eastern Croatia.

Serbian politicians and those claiming to govern the conquered Croatian territory have begun singing in unison the praises of redrawing boundaries to expand Serbia so that it can accommodate all Serbs, while ceding small Serbian villages deep inside Croatia to the rival Croats in return.

But the plans of Belgrade bureaucrats and occupation officials appear to have overlooked popular resistance. Many of those envisioned as new settlers of Greater Serbia are desperately unhappy in their unwanted new homes.

"This is not mine. I don't want it. I want what is mine!" sobbed Balatinac. "I can never live here like I lived in my own home. If I can't go back there, I'll still want to forever, and I'll raise my son to go back even if it takes 20 years."

The Balatinac home is in the mainly Croatian town of Cepin, which has come under attack by the Serbian-led federal army in its campaign to take the nearby city of Osijek. Croatian nationalists have also fired on the home to punish Balatinac for her fellow Serbs' aggression.

Serbs account for 600,000 of Croatia's 5 million people. About one-third of them live in the region known as the Krajina, Croatia's military frontier established centuries ago when Serbs fleeing Ottoman rule were given land along Austria's southern border in exchange for defending the Hapsburg empire from Turkish attacks.

When Croatia declared its independence June 25, Krajina's Serbs revolted against the republic's secession from Yugoslavia, where Serbs are the largest and most influential ethnic group. Battles have since raged throughout Croatia between republic national guardsmen and the Serbian-commanded federal army, which claims to be protecting the Serbian minority from a fascist plot by the Croats to wipe them out.

With at least 7,000 dead and 500,000 homeless after five months of chaotic fighting, ethnic hatred has escalated to a fever pitch and poisoned relations between Serbs and Croats, many believe beyond repair.

"There's no more chance of cultural autonomy or some separate status within Croatia. The only possibility for the future is redrawing of the borders," insists Goran Hadjic, prime minister of the proclaimed Serbian province of Slavonija, Baranja and West Srem.

The Serbian leaders have begun busing in new settlers, who are taking over the houses, farms and apartments of the tens of thousands of Croats whom the army and local Serbian militants killed or expelled. They deny the resettlement is a violation of the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit occupation of conquered territory. Instead, they contend the move is only temporary until a negotiated peace treaty can be arranged to legalize the fait accompli .

There is also a precedent, the Serbs claim, for repopulation in the area around Beli Manastir. It was here that tens of thousands of ethnic Germans were expelled after World War II, drawing in Serbs and Croats forced to flee other areas of Yugoslavia that were the scenes of brutal massacres and retaliations.

"Future common life is impossible, and it is best for the Croats and for the Serbs to part in a peaceful manner and fix frontiers between them wherever possible," said Jovan Ilic, a geography professor at Belgrade University.

Employing popular Serbian justifications for deeming huge areas of Croatia the rightful property of Serbs, Ilic has proposed to the Serbian government that new boundaries be drawn to better define the ethnic makeup.

Los Angeles Times Articles