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THE WORLD

A Paradise Lost to Serbs

Balkans: Visitors are returning to Croatia's islands after years of war. But for a former enemy, the tourist visas are out of reach.

July 13, 2002|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRAC ISLAND, Croatia — After seeing the dazzling archipelago that lies off the Croatian coast, George Bernard Shaw wrote that "on the last day of Creation, God wished to crown his work, so he created the Kornati islands out of tears, sand and breath."

Sand and light breezes still bless the Kornati--which are only a few of the nearly 1,200 islands and islets along the coast. But the tears are shed by Serbs who no longer are permitted to visit Croatia's shores, once their favorite retreat from landlocked Serbia, the main republic of Yugoslavia.

The absence of Serbs from the otherwise recovering tourist industry in Croatia is one of the lasting scars of Yugoslavia's 1991-95 civil war, and it is a subtle but clear indication that it will take many years for the different religious and ethnic groups in the region to be reconciled.

The tourism industry, which used to draw about 8 million visitors a year, according to Croatian officials, was wiped out by the war and only now is beginning to come back.

But Serbs, who used to make up at least 20% of visitors, cannot get tourist visas to travel to their Balkan neighbor. Even if they could, they would not be wanted, Croats say.

"Serbs would not be welcome here, after the damage they did," said Vinko Bakija, director of tourism for Supetar, the largest city on the nearby island of Brac. "People would not rent rooms to them. Maybe they could find some family to rent a room, but then they [the family] would have to worry about what their neighbors would say."

Few people from the islands lost their lives in the war, but a number of Croatian men went to fight on the front lines and there appears to be a kind of collective memory of the wartime experience.

"Although I was not in the war, I have some kind of bad feeling toward Serbs," said Vinko Dubravic, 23, as he sat watching the shimmering blue of the Adriatic from a seaside cafe in Supetar.

"If someone said he was a Serb, I would look at him with different eyes, and I think the majority of Croats feel that way," he said. "There's still a certain hatred, a certain fire that has not been extinguished."

Ethnic Serbs in Croatia revolted when the republic declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, and with the help of the Serb-led Yugoslav army, they seized a third of Croatia. There was a particularly damaging assault on the walled city of Dubrovnik. Known as the jewel of the Croatian coast, the city features 19th century Austro-Hungarian architecture alongside earlier Italian Renaissance buildings.

Milo Razovic, who heads the tourism office for the province of Split and Dalmatia, which includes many of the country's largest islands, says he worries that if Serbs are allowed to come, there might be a fight between Croats and ethnic Serbs.

That would blot the country's reputation among tourists, so it is better, he said, that Serbs not come--at least for the time being.

"It could be that when someone hears a Serb accent, they move away [instead of fighting], but it's also possible that there would be a provocation and an incident, and then the place gets a bad reputation."

Despite talk of reconciliation, Croatia declined to issue the same type of summer tourist visas to Serbs from Yugoslavia that Yugoslavia has extended to almost all visitors, including Croats.

For a Serb to obtain a visa to travel through Croatia, even to do business in Zagreb, the capital, is extremely difficult. There is just one phone number for Serbs to call for visa information and it is usually busy, said Relja Bobic, a Serb disc jockey who often works in Croatia and struggles each time to get a visa.

The result is that for all practical purposes, Serbs can no longer go to the Croatian coast. Even Serb tourists going to Italy, for instance, end up traveling through Hungary and Austria, a route that takes more than 12 hours, twice the time it used to take going through Croatia.

"We have started talks about the visa issue," said Goran Granic, one of Croatia's deputy prime ministers. "But it will depend on democratic developments in Serbia. Serbia has been isolated for a long time and for a long period a chaos reigned there," said Granic, who refused to say how long it might be before the two countries normalized visa relations.

War veterans, whose quasi-political organizations are strong along the coast, are unequivocal. They would want Serbs to come back only if there was a way to keep out those who fought in the war, said Mirko Condic, who heads a veterans group.

"I would want to see a kind of control so that those Serbs who participated in the aggression could not come to Croatia," said Condic, who has been in a wheelchair since fighting on the front lines.

Independent analysts say the government, a fragile centrist coalition, has little interest now in reaching out to Serbs, because its main concern is to ensure that it does not lose voters to the nationalist parties, which rally the public in part with anti-Serb rhetoric.

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