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A Croatian's Tour of Desolate Homeland

A Croatian's Tour of Desolate Homeland. SECOND OF TWO PARTS

July 05, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OSIJEK, Croatia — These are the scenes of war's aftermath Zvonko Kutlesa has witnessed today: shattered neighborhoods and churches, a mother and her small children surveying the wreckage that was once their home, armed local men in battle fatigues standing lonely guard on the front line against Serbian forces.

For two helpless years in his Canoga Park apartment, Kutlesa has had to watch images like these from the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. And he has come these thousands of miles to Croatia not only for a too-brief reunion with his pregnant wife and two children, but also to finally see firsthand what has befallen his country since the beginning of civil war in June, 1991.

He's brought an amateur video camera with him today, determined to document the continuing horrors for the Croatian and Bosnian communities in Los Angeles, where he will grudgingly return by August to earn money for his extended family here. Leaning against the heavy sandbags of a Croatian national guard post in the village of Jovanovac, Kutlesa aims his camera east, toward the Serbian flag flying high above enemy positions just 200 yards away.

The soldiers here, all refugees from the Serb-held village of Tenja six miles away, pass a bottle of warm orange juice between them and trade painful wisecracks about the war and the year-old cease-fire. Kutlesa laughs, though his mood is subdued later. "I didn't lose anything in the war," he said. "And when you're standing there with these people, I felt some shame, because I was in America."

Kutlesa, 38, came to Los Angeles five years ago, eventually joining another Croatian expatriate to form a small but thriving construction firm. During subsequent trips back and forth between the United States and his homeland, he married Vlasta, a college girlfriend. But the last two years have been the most difficult, watching the struggle of a newly independent Croatia and seeing his own relatives turned into refugees.

He remembers speaking by telephone with a sister huddled in a Zagreb basement during a bombing raid while her husband faced Serbs armed with Soviet-made tanks on the battlefield. One bomb fell in an open field 200 yards from his parents' home in Zagreb.

In Jovanovac, the cost of civil war has been much higher. The army estimates that about 50,000 mortars fell here, killing 33 villagers and wounding many. Homes damaged or destroyed during the war are scattered along the main road, some of them reduced to nothing more than mounds of broken clay and splintered wood.

The town stands in a crucial tactical position for the defense of nearby Osijek, where Kutlesa's family now lives. The city of 100,000 already faces Serbian forces on three sides and is protected only by civilian police and United Nations troops. If Jovanovac were to fall, Osijek could be quickly surrounded, with roads and communication lines cut off to the rest of Croatia.

Dragolaub Todoravic commands this post. The 33-year-old ethnic Serb's younger brother wears the uniform of the enemy and faces him across the contact line. Their mother has fled to Hungary. But Todoravic seems to shrug it all off. He jokes that perhaps his brother just likes to celebrate Serbian holidays.

What Todoravic wants are his belongings in Tenja, particularly the photographs of his children.

"That's all I want from my brother," he said. "Then the next time we talk, it will be with weapons."

A plastic figurine of the Virgin Mary rests on sandbags behind him, and soldiers with binoculars scan a raw no-man's land covered with brush and cut power lines. Todoravic prefers to identify himself as Orthodox--by religion--rather than Serb, because his family has lived in this part of Croatia for 300 years. "I feel like I am at home," he said.

This village next to the front line was devastated in a massive attack launched in November, 1991. The people here were mostly farmers and commuters to Osijek. Nearly 300 telephone lines demonstrated an uncommon affluence for so small a village.

Now little works as it once did--not the phones, not even running water. But one woman has returned to the unstable shell that was her house with her two children and a neighbor. "Have you ever seen kids on the front line?" one soldier asked, watching. "They have heart, no fear."

Valerija Bijelic, 29, has brought her children back to visit this house twice before. So Renata, 6, and 3-year-old Ivana have grown accustomed to the sight of destruction. Their mother said she is certain that the neighborhood will one day be rebuilt and resettled by the families that were here before.

"We all went through the same thing," she said, her red and orange blouse flapping in the wind. "Each house has problems. I think we'll feel much stronger for each other than we did before the war."

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