June 13, 1995 Vreme News Digest Agency No 193

Serbs in Osjek and Pakrac

Nobody's People

by Uros Komlenovic

"Children can be wicked, so I gave my consent for him to attend Catholic religious instruction. I fear for my job, and since the whole neighbourhood knows I am a Serb, I wouldn' t want my children to suffer."

New glass being placed in the windows of shops, looted by the Croatian army during operation "Flash" at the beginning of May in Okucani is supposed to be tangible evidence of the successful "peaceful reintegration" of Western Slavonia into Croatia. Soon, old inscriptions in Serbian Cyrillic alphabet will disappear under new layers of whitewash and paint, and with them, it seems, will the Serbs. There are practically none left in Okucani. Already during the Croatian attack, all who could escaped, with many of them perishing in the process, so on arrival the Croatian army found only several dozen people. In the town of Pakrac, on the other hand, they encountered several thousand Serbs (due mainly to the fact that their escape route was cut off during the first day of the Croatian offensive) but since then more than two thousand people left the district in spite of the attempts by the Croatian authorities to convince them that they are not under threat.

In reality the things are of course different. While before the Croatian Television cameras policemen distributed bars of chocolate amongst Serbian children in Gavrinica, Japaga and Seovica (populated areas outside Pacrac to which journalists and representatives of international organizations had access), in the more remote villages people were being "swallowed by darkness". The news of the murder of Ljubica and Dragan Todorovic in the village of Galici, near Skenderovac, after which their flock of 70 sheep was stolen had since been confirmed, but the lack of official information and the fact that none of the relatives or neighbours were allowed to attend the funeral sparked the spread of terrifying rumors.

" In mid-May, two weeks after the end of the military operation by the Croats, Nenad Ostojic, Dragan Sarapa, Bozic - a man whose first name I can not recall, and Jozo Vitnik whose nationality, as we used to say, was 'Galician', were also killed," says Dusan Ecimovic from Okucani, former press secretary in the government of the Republic of Serb Krajina, now a refugee in Belgrade. "All the above mentioned lived in Milana Stanivukovica Street in Okucani. Besides them, Milorad and Jovan Vuckovic from Benkovac Okucanski were also killed. As far as we know, they were both murdered on return from forced labor: they were cleaning bricks on a building site in the Croatian village of Gornji Bogicevci. I am not aware of other details: I don't know how they died or where they were buried."

The true number of victims of the Croatian attack on Western Slavonia remains unknown. The locals have spotted new hillocks in the Vrbovljani village cemetery and near the Orthodox Church in Okucani, which indicate possible locations of mass graves. However, Serbs believe that it is all another con by the Croatian authorities: the hillocks are visible, but no one is buried underneath. According to this theory they are just a bait for the representatives of international humanitarian organizations, while real mass graves are elsewhere.

Croatian authorities, who released the figure of 1,200 Serbs wounded during the military offensive, still failed to publish the list with their names and present location, i.e. which hospital where they are being treated. Many people are still treated as "missing".

"We have learnt that on the first day of the attack, a truck carrying two women and a large sum of money had been ambushed near Benkovac, at the spot where Pakrac-Okucani route was severed," says for 'Vreme' Obrad Ivanovic, former Chairman of the executive committee of the Pakrac local council (once the part of the town with a Serbian majority). "Both of them disappeared and no one knows what happened to the schoolgirl Zora Mitrovic either. Some families are still trying to discover the whereabouts of their closest relatives and friends who tried to escape down that route. I fear they all perished."

380 Serb prisoners from Pakrac also vanished. They are the ones who were taken, following their surrender, to various assembly points but neither returned nor were declared "held pending further investigation". "According to unofficial sources, the men are now scattered in prisons across Croatia: in Slavonska Pozega, Osjek, Bjelovar and Zagreb," explains Obrad Ivanovic. According to the information available, 186 people suspected of some crime or war crime have been retained. Croatian criteria for war crimes is quite flexible, and unfortunately for the prisoners, Croatian police confiscated the archive of the 18th Corps of the Krajina Army with photocopies of every soldier's military I.D. The fact that many soldiers signed on as "special units" or "saboteurs" in order to receive a better salary will hardly improve their position in the hands of Croatian authorities.

"This is all but peaceful reintegration," is Obrad Ivanovic's assessment of the situation, " They could have reached some sort of political settlement in this area, the motorway was open and the opening of other means of communication was also being negotiated. Now people are leaving. They are terrified and subjected to maltreatment. When the Croatian army was still around they used to loot houses and provoke the population. The policemen are quite decent but in the night masked men appear in the town, enter houses and terrorize the population. It is important to emphasize that following the first Croatian attack and the subsequent agreement about demilitarization, continuation of political negotiations and opening of the route for humanitarian aid, people began to trust Croatia. After the May 4th shelling, people realized that Croatian authorities deceived them. It is interesting that all EU representatives who were with us during the bombardment had to leave for what Croatian authorities called 'reasons of personal safety'. We believe that they wanted the monitors out of the way to prevent them from saying what they know.

Serbs from Pakrac are faced with new methods of mistreatment on a daily basis. In the atmosphere of fear and mistrust, a single incident is sufficient for a whole village to start packing. One such incident took place in Brusnik where armed civilians (apparently the same people who are "decent" policemen during the day) entered the village, shoved their revolvers in the mouths of several villagers and made them lick salt. While in the village of Kricka, Veljko Dzakula, the leader of Serbs from Western Slavonia, was driven away by the police though he appeared with the escort of two police inspectors.

At the same time, the initially rapid assignment of "domovnicas" (Croatian citizenship documents) and other papers slowed down. "When I fell ill the doctor refused to see me without my health card," complains a Serbian woman, "I can not obtain one without a 'domovnica' for which I applied, but received nothing yet."

The current situation faced by Serbs in Pakrac is for Serbs in Osjek a part of everyday life, and has been for some time. For them, time spent waiting for citizenship is an ideal they dream of.

"We laugh a little at what is going on in Okucani, I mean the quick assignment of 'domovnice' etc.," says Miroljub Mihailovic, president of the Regional union of Serbs from Slavonia and Baranja, "In Osjek there are people whose status has been unresolved for three years though they lived in Croatia since 1945 or 1946, and are married to Croatian women, citizens of Croatia. Often, in spite of it all, people receive deportation orders and have to leave behind their whole life: wife, children, property, state pension..."

According to the 1991 census, there were 33,000 Serbs in the former district of Osjek. According to the estimate of Branimir Glavas, head of the Osjek-Baranja District council, there are only about 10,000 left, or 5-6,000 which is the estimate of the Union of Serbs and the Serbian People's Party. Those who are left behind go out only when they have to, keeping out of everybody's way and generally maintaining a low profile. "I never had any problems in Osjek, I have my 'domovnica', I am employed and no one bothers me," claims a middle-aged Serb to the satisfaction of a few Croats who witnessed the conversation. When alone, the story is quite different. Looking over his shoulder after every few steps, the man tells about how he lost his job, how they threatened to slit his throat, and all else he suffered. "You know, people floated down the Drava river" he whispers, discretely drawing the edge of his hand across his neck, eager to return home, promising a more extensive conversation the next day. He failed to keep the appointment.

"Yes, they did float down the Drava," confirms a political analyst from Osjek and reminds of a series of eight murders that took place, in the same manner during the 1991 war: victims had their hands tied with wire, they were shot in the head and thrown in the river. The perpetrators were never found.

The president of the regional branch of the Serbian People's Party for Osjek and Baranja, Branislav Vorkapic claims that evidence exists about the murders and that "it has been filed away pending the time when it can be effectively used for punishing the perpetrators of those crimes". Vorkapic and Mihailovic are ready to talk about the sacking of Serbs, about evictions, robberies, mining of houses, destruction of churches, but unwilling to come up with details since they do not have access to police files:

"Judging by what the Mayor of Osjek, Kamaric said, around 300 houses in the town have so far been blown up, mainly those owned by citizens of Serbian origin," says Miroljub Mihailovic. "The Chapel of the Holy Resurrection of Christ in Radic Street has been blown up twice: once in July last year and then again in February, immediately prior to the agreement about the opening of the motorway. The church remained complete only due to its old construction and 90 cm thick walls, although most of them are cracked and the floor has risen... The Church of the Ascent of the Mother of God in Donji Grad, better known as Slavonska Lazarica, has been mined and looted as well as receiving a couple of shells fired by the 'Serbian brothers' from the other side. 80 gravestones have been destroyed in the Orthodox Cemetery in Cepin, while the Church in the town center, which had been mined once already in 1941, was this time completely flattened.

Church of St. Nicholas in Vinkovci was mined three times until completely destroyed. It survived the last war, but not this one. None of the perpetrators have been found, though clear indications exist as to who might be responsible."

"When I tried to help the police with their inquiries about the Cepine Cemetery case I was almost accused of being responsible for organizing the mining," adds Branislav Vorkapic.

Those among the Osijek Serbs who are prone to black humor and cynicism will probably say that churches without priests are quite redundant anyway. Two priests left the town in 1991. Last year saw the death of old Father Miskovic whose standing in the town was so high that even Branimir Glavas spoke at the funeral. Bishop of Slavonia did send a new priest but the parishioners never accepted him on the ground that they belong, formally at least, to the Osjek-Baranja Eparchy. The local Church board decided to bring in a priest from the far away village of Miholjac, which resulted in a conflict of authority, a conflict that culminated in a punch-up between the two priests during a funeral service. It is also being claimed that the Church Board's term of office had expired and there is a quarrel over money from its treasury.

Recently, police stopped a Priest from Miholjci on his way to Osjek and asked him "Where to Father?", and when he replied that he was off to a funeral they said "We will bury you here and now" and beat him up.

In such conditions it is impossible to organize religious instruction for Orthodox children. This is why children more and more frequently attend Catholic religious instruction in order for them not to stick out from the rest.

"What do I say to a seven year old who comes back from school with questions not even I can answer. How can I explain to him all that is going on," complains a local Serb. "Children can be wicked, so I gave my consent for him to attend Catholic religious instruction. I fear for my job, and since the whole neighbourhood knows I am a Serb, I wouldn't want my children to suffer."

Besides sending their children to Catholic religious instruction and changing their names (Jovan into Ivan, Dusan into Ante, while in mixed marriages couples use the surname of the Croatian spouse), some Serbs even demanded withdrawal from the Orthodox church in order to become Catholics. The local Catholic parish priest Josif Bogdanic from St. Peter and St. Paul's Church claims that about a dozen Serbs approached him so far with the desire to join his congregation and "unite with the Catholic Church", but he refused them all:

"I told them there is plenty of time. They ought to wait for things to settle down, for Orthodox clergy to return to Osjek, in order for people to be able to discuss the matter before making the decision. I sometimes feel sorry for those people, but I do not want the shame associated with conversion for the wrong reasons attached to my name. This is why I refuse them all."

Many Serbs in Slavonia figured out that a transparent loyalty to the Croatian state is the only way to secure a more or less normal existence. If the words of the local military commander General Djuro Decak can be believed, he has officers of Serbian nationality in his regiment. "I have Serbs in my units, colonels and lieutenants as well as ordinary soldiers. The Croatian army recognizes the possibility of a 'reproach of conscience' so no one can force those Serbs to shoot at their brothers. They have the option of work in the kitchen or doing similar marginal jobs, but need not go to the combat zone."

General Decak failed to mention that "marginal jobs" often include digging trenches in the front line, under crossfire. On the other hand, being under crossfire is a natural state of affairs for many Serbs currently living in Croatia. In Osjek for example, they are constantly being shelled by their fellow Serbs from Baranja and Eastern Slavonia. Even if they survive the bombardment they are then targeted by their neighbours. "For many in Croatia we are the fifth column, while for the Serbs across the border we are traitors, Tudjman's Serbs, so not even we know who we are," complains a Serb from Osjek.

This is why the Serbian community in Western Slavonia is gradually disappearing. According to information provided by the Serbian People's Party, out of 187,000 Serbs in the region before the war, there are now only 78,000 left. In Western Slavonia, in areas that used to be ethnically more compact than even some towns in Serbia proper, there are now hardly any Serbs left. People are constantly migrating, those who remain are those who have nowhere to go. They are neglected by Belgrade, despised by Knin, and constantly terrorized by Zagreb, who is successfully implementing the policy of ethnic cleansing, in accordance with the image of the Croatian state which very much resembles the South American dictatorship regimes from the 1980's if not the Croatian fascist state which existed during World War II. Branislav Vorkapic believes that better political organization among the remaining Serbs could yield some beneficial results, but does not hide his disappointment in the Serbian intelligentsia.

"They have completely stalled. Some left, and those left behind did not wish to enter politics: because of fear, in order to keep their jobs, maintain the peace in the family, it doesn't really matter. Why am I, a professional pilot and flying instructor, the president of the local Serbian People's Party instead of some academic, for example, and there are a few of those around. If SPP policies don't suit them, let them found a new party. But why keep silent. That is the worst option because ordinary people suffer."

Branislav Vorkapic is right- Serbs from Osjek are silent as they pass by the blown-up chapel or a wall with the following inscription, written in large capital letters: "Only a dead Serb is a good Serb"