KARLOVAC, Croatia — Dragica Hodak pointed through the laundry hanging on the barren balcony of a three-room apartment that she and her family occupy as refugees.
"They are very close," she said of the enemy, speaking carefully so her 4-year-old son would not detect the alarm in her voice. "You can almost see the shelling from this window."
The specter of Croatia returning to war haunts towns like this and people like Hodak. After nearly four years of relative peace, the government of this wishbone-shaped country leaning against the Adriatic Sea appears closer than ever to resuming an ancient conflict over land and identity.
Croatia has announced that it is expelling the 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers who have been the buffer between Croatian forces and their foes, the Serbs, who control nearly a third of national territory.
The Serbian insurgents took the land in the 1991 Serb-Croat war after Croatia declared its independence from what was then the Serb-dominated Yugoslav federation. An estimated 10,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands, like Hodak, were driven from their homes.
The way the Croats see it, the U.N. mission was to help oversee return of the land to Croatian control. But that has not happened, the Serbs have effectively set up their own state within a state, and the Croatian government has lost patience. Time's up.
In a high-stakes gamble that alarmed the international community but played to domestic nationalism, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman said the United Nations must be gone by the end of June. Although Tudjman insists that he wants "peaceful re-integration" of the disputed areas, his move was widely seen as Croatia clearing the way to retake the land by force.
If war erupts again, Karlovac, 35 miles south of the capital, Zagreb, will once again be on the front line. It was heavily bombed during the battles of 1991, when the Serbs, backed by the Yugoslav army, easily overpowered the lesser-armed Croats.
Still barely a mile from Serbian forces, Karlovac continued to suffer during the "peace," when the Serbs periodically shelled this and other targets to remind the Croats they were still a threat. Eight residents were killed in a Serbian attack in the fall of 1993. A downtown church lies in ruins, numerous buildings are pockmarked and the city is surrounded by refugee camps.
The Croatian government and the Serbs signed a cease-fire agreement in March, 1994, and things have been relatively quiet since. Many of the Croatian Serbs, meanwhile, have crossed westward into Bosnia-Herzegovina, where they have been attacking the Muslim enclave of Bihac.
For Hodak and others in Karlovac, the relative quiet is now studded with tension and dread.
"Of course we are afraid of more war!" said Hodak, almost derisive of the question as she sat at her small kitchen table, her toddler son, Hrvoje, clinging to her neck.
"People are living without aim, living from day to day," she said. "Everyone is afraid and very uncertain. They do not know what to expect. I have to pretend in front of my children so they will not panic. But we are all afraid."
Hodak, 34, was forced to flee from her home at Lake Plitvica, a popular tourist site in central Croatia, in early 1991 when Serbs surrounded her town and launched a scheme of "ethnic cleansing" to drive out non-Serbs. She was nine months pregnant at the time.
Leaving behind her husband, a policeman, she was bused to one refugee center after another, miles and miles from home, before ending up in Karlovac. She gave birth to Hrvoje in a refugee camp.
"He started his life as a refugee," Hodak said of her child. "No one knows how it will end."
Hodak's husband, Mile, was eventually allowed to leave Plitvica and joined her in Karlovac, where they were given an apartment that, ironically, had been abandoned by Serbs who either fled or were driven out of this Croat-controlled area. Mile Hodak, 37, a darkly somber, largely silent man, said he is convinced that "peaceful re-integration" of Serb-held territory is impossible.
"I am not afraid," he said. "My only feeling is pity and sadness because of the children and for the younger generation, because they will have to pass through war and atrocities."
The mistrust is, of course, mutual. The Serbs believe they are entitled to self-rule in their ancestral homes along the long, rural stretch of Croatia known as the Krajina, which borders on Bosnia. Their forebears were first settled there as a barrier against advancing Turks hundreds of years ago, and the reputation they earned as dedicated fighters continues today.