Ethnic Hatred Lingers in Croatia: "God May Forgive, We Don't"

By Marion Kraske

Not far inland from Croatia's tourism hotspots on the Adriatic coast, ethnic tensions run deep between Croats and the Serb minority now gradually returning 12 years after the end of the civil war.

The nights scare Sofia Skoric most. The 71-year-old Serb woman sits in her sparsely furnished sitting room, her wrinkled skin bronzed by decades of sunshine. It's getting dark outside and she no longer feels safe. It's night again, and she and her husband Svetozar feel they may again fall victim to the rage of their neighbors.

Just like one night last summer. It was shortly after half past one when people started hurling bricks through the windows of their house. The police later counted 34 bricks in the house. Other Serbs in the small village of Biljane Donje were also targeted. Within a few hours, police had found the culprits: four young Croats from the neighboring village of Skabrnja.

Biljane Donje, a village of just eight houses without shops or a post office, is home to a handful of Serbs who have returned to Croatia after spending years away as refugees. The police have started patrolling the village regularly to protect the Skorics and other Serbs, but they can't allay the residents' fears. "I can't get to sleep without sleeping pills," says Sofia.

Hatred of "Chetniks"

The nocturnal attack was only one of many incidents. Sofia tells of cars that suddenly stop outside her house with strangers screaming abuse at them, calling them "Chetniks," or Serb nationalists.

Twelve years after the end of the civil war, barely a week goes by without the returning Serbs suffering abuse and intimidation. Retribution, not reconciliation, marks the lives of the former enemies.

In late January unknown attackers set fire to a Serb orthodox church in Koprivnica north of Zagreb. Serb cemeteries are desecrated, like a few weeks ago in the village of Kozice. Serb cars are set on fire. Hate-filled graffiti is daubed on housefronts, in buses and in streets, Serbs are spat at, insulted, threatened. Croatian President Stipe Mesic has called for reconciliation. The attack on the Skorics, he said at the time, was an "attack on all of Croatia."

In the evergreen hinterland of the Adriatic town of Zadar, divisions between Serbs and Croats run especially deep. Here, in what used to be the fruit basket of Tito's Yugoslavia, Croats and Serbs fought each other bitterly between 1991 and 1995.

Serb troops and paramilitary forces launched their attacks on Croat civilians from Knin, the nearby capital of the self-proclaimed Serb republic of Krajina. Their aim was to ethnically cleanse the region and then link it up with the Serbia of then-dictator Slobodan Milosevic. The leader of the Serb Krajina militia, Milan Babic, admitted before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague that his troops had committed the "worst sort of crimes."

Then Croat units prepared a counterblow in the summer of 1995. In just a few days General Ante Gotovina reconquered Croatian territory. He brought freedom to his fellow Croats and death to hundreds of Serbs, among them women and children. Sofia and Svetozar Skoric fled Gotovina's militia. Like thousands of other Serbs, they left what they owned behind.

Gotovina the Hero

Many Croats can't understand why General Gotovina faces war crimes charges in The Hague. "We were only defending ourselves," they say and worship the general like a god. Gotovina, the "heroj." A giant poster on the road into Zadar shows him side by side with late Pope John Paul II -- a bold photo montage.

While tourism is booming again on the coast from Istria to Dalmatia and holiday resorts attract sun-worshippers from Germany and Austria, Ireland and America, time seems to have stood still a few miles inland. On the former front line where Serb and Croat troops faced each other, red signs still warn of landmines. Once prosperous settlements still lie deserted as ghost villages, testifying to the war.

So far only a minority of Serb refugees have dared to return. Of the former 350,000 Serbs in the area, only 123,000 have come back, the OSCE estimates. They are mostly older people -- the younger Serbs stay away because they don't see a future here.

The West regards the return of Serb refugees as an important indicator of democratic progress in the ambitious Balkan country. Prime Minister Ivo Sanader wants to lead his nation of 4.5 million into NATO and the European Union as quickly as possible.

The EU Commission isn't in so much of a hurry. Croatia must prove its reliability as a stable democratic country before it can join the bloc, says Brussels. Attacks on national minorities aren't helping its cause.

The government, realising this, has demonstrated its willingness to help the returning Serbs. It has rebuilt Serb homes with state subsidies and the prime minister himself has occasionally been on hand to hand them over.

Despite such gestures, peace remains a long way off in the Krajina region. "There's deep-seated hatred especially in the villages," says Damir Maricic who lived through the war as a journalist for the daily newspaper Zadarski List. "Everyone knows everyone, and everyone knows -- or purports to know --what the others did in the war."

Unforgotten massacre

The Serbs who returned to Biljane Donje are all under suspicion among many Croats. It was from here that Serb paramilitary forces attacked the neighboring Croat village of Skabrnja. That was more than 15 years ago, on November 18, 1991.

Serb militia murdered around 80 Croats, among them women, children and old people. They tortured some of them, others they shot dead at point blank range, then they burnt down the houses, 450 of them in total. They wrapped the dead in black nylon sacks and took them into the center of Zadar like hunting trophies.

Since then Skabrnja has come to mean the same for Croatia as Srebrenica means for Bosnia. A national symbol of appalling suffering and of the cruelty of former Serb neighbors, some of whom have now come back.

"There's no one here who didn't lose a member of their family in the massacre," says the mayor of Skabrnja, Nediljko Bubnjar, wearing black sunglasses, his mobile phone attached to his belt. Bubnjar, regarded as a moderate here, says he condemns the attacks on Serbs in Biljane Donje. "But," he says emphatically, "one must not forget what happened here either."

Three plain memorial stones stand in the cemetery of Skabrnja with the names of the victims of the massacre inscribed on them. They include family members of the people who recently attacked the house of Sofia and Svetozar Skoric.

Dennis Zilic, a 34-year-old Croat who hurled stones at the house, lost several relatives including his mother.

On the same night that they scared the old Serb couple, they daubed a sentence on the wall of a ruined building: "God forgives -- Skabrnja doesn't."

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