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This Land is Serb Land, Come Guns or Negotiators

West baffled by tenacity of Spartan Serbs in Croatia

THE rich brown soil, picturesque villages, and rolling fields are reminiscent of America's Great Plains. But in this resource-rich region, farmers wear camouflage fatigues instead of overalls and carry AK-47s instead of pitchforks.

The Serbs leveled Vukovar - the largest city of this region - in the first major battle over the breakup of former Yugoslavia in 1991, causing thousands to die. The Serbs now control a little less than one-third of Croatia, but the Croats vow to get it back.

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While the world watches Serbs battling Muslims in nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina, the tensions in Croatia between Croats and Serbs in their self-declared ``Republic of Krajina'' continue to simmer dangerously despite an awkward peace negotiated two years ago by former United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance.

Despite the West's hopes that Serbs in Croatia might accept some alliance with Croatia, three years of intermittent fighting, nationalist propaganda, and poverty has created a highly militarized and underdeveloped agrarian society the Croatian Serbs are determined to keep.

The fiercely independent mentality that has developed here and in Serb-held parts of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to baffle the West.

``More pigs than people ... more guns than pigs,'' says Phil Corwin, a United Nations official describing the disputed territory. ``I think the West still doesn't understand these people.''

Historical events - from Serbs establishing monasteries in Croatia in the 14th century to the brutal destruction of this city in 1991 - seem to dominate interviews with local Serbs.

Biljana Jerkovic, a young mother of two who has been unemployed for the last two years, says being poor is better than rejoining Croatia. Her family survives by using family land to grow food.

``So many people were killed in this war,'' says Ms. Jerkovic, one of a handful of shoppers wandering around the mostly empty market in Vukovar. ``It's not possible to go back.''

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The West's strategy here and in neighboring Bosnia is that poverty and isolation will eventually force rebel Serbs to cut peace deals with the governments of Croatia and Bosnia. But Serbs in both areas say they are determined to have their self-declared states internationally recognized and eventually form a ``Greater Serbia.''

``We have already lost everything we owned,'' says Gordana - a Serb mother of two who says the Krajina Serbs should not rejoin Croatia. Shopping with her young daughter, she says her part-time factory job is her family's only source of income, but, ``We [Serbs] will get by somehow.''

For Col. Kosta Novakovic, the Deputy Commander of Krajina Serb forces in the Vukovar area, the stakes are simple: ``All Serbs would be assimilated into Croatian society or killed within a couple of years.''

Western historians say that as many as 500,000 Serbs were murdered by a pro-Nazi regime established in Croatia and parts of Bosnia during World War II, but Western officials now accuse the Serb nationalists of using the past as an excuse to carry out war crimes and land-grabs in Croatia and Bosnia.

UN officials say a constant state of war has been cultivated to create a siege mentality that aids political leaders who would be thrown out of office if Krajina Serbs began to consider the conditions they are living under. ``Everyone wears their gun and uniform to show their loyalty,'' says one official. ``But that is just masking the fact that there's a lot of depression and anger ... there are no jobs.''

Serb-held areas here, like in Bosnia, have been reduced to economic wastelands by a UN embargo against Serbia - their main backer in the war - and a devotion of all resources to the war effort. Officials say 80 percent of Krajina's 500,000 residents are unemployed.

Vukovar is a visual testament to the uphill battle the Serbs face in rebuilding the territory. The eerily empty city, once home to 45,000 but now as few as 10,000, was completely destroyed in 1991.

Three years later, the city is still rubble. Croatian Roman Catholic churches have been blown up or had their steeples dynamited.

In nearby Borovo, a textile factory that was one of the 10 largest factories in all of the former Yugoslavia sits mostly idle. A lack of fuel and raw material has led the plant's employment to drop from 23,000 before the war to 3,450 today.

At the headquarters of the state-run Krajina Oil Company outside Vukovar, officials are desperately trying to re-establish pumping operations in the area's rich oil fields, but are unable to obtain the spare parts they need. Officials deny it, but large amounts of oil are reportedly being diverted to the war effort.

``The problem is the embargo...,'' says general manager Miomir Crnogorac. ``It's a serious problem ... [because] without energy, you have no life.''

For now, Krajina Serb residents tell reporters their ``freedom'' from the Croatian government is worth having ``no life.''

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