The town had been cleansed; the devastation of battle lay all around. Just two old people remained

Sarah Helm reports on the flight of the Serbs from the shattered town of Petrinja fghdgdfs happening in a hArrowing place 'The devastation lay all around'
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We found Milutin Cavic yesterday cowering in the darkness of a tiny shelter, at 81 Matija Gubec Street, in the town of Petrinja, in "liberated" Krajina.

Petrinja had been cleansed of Serbs; the devastation of battle lay all around. But Milutin, an 84-year-old Serb, had remained. He blinked when the light streamed through his shelter door, revealing him sitting on a rusty deck-chair, surrounded by jam jars and dried meat.

We were shown to the shelter by Stefica Boche, a 77-year-old Croat woman, who lives next door. Stefica has been cooking for Milutin throughout the fighting. They have been neighbours here for nearly 30 years. As in the rest of Krajina, Serbs and Croats lived alongside each other in this town until Serbian forces seized the land in 1991, forcing the Croats to flee.

"I did not want to leave my house. I live here with the Croats like a family," said the old man. But Stefica froze when we asked whether this old Serb might still be her friend. She glanced at the old man and then at us, fearful of giving the wrong answer. "I do not believe in friendship," she said quietly.

Milutin Cavic and Stefica Boche were the only people we found still living in Petrinja, scene of some of the heaviest fighting in the brief Krajina war. The town fell to Croatian forces after heavy bombardment late on Sunday. Milutin's family fled when the blitzkrieg reached its height. "They said they would be back in a few days. I don't know," he said. Stefica's friends and family had fled during the Serbian takeover of Petrinja in 1991. "I was too old to leave with the others. But now they will come back," she said, impassively.

The evidence of the Serb flight still lay all around. In a bombed out bar a line of half drunk beer glasses sat untouched. There were shoes strewn across the streets and pieces of clothing hung from metal fencing. Their owners were now somewhere to the south, heading for the Bosnian border along with 120,000 other Serbian refugees who have fled the Croatian offensive.

With the fall of such strategic towns, the Croats have little doubt that all of Krajina will soon be theirs once again. As the sound of guns began to die, it was possible yesterday to witness the triumph of the Croatian "return", along with the devastation and the terrible trauma it has caused.

The Croatian flags hanging from the blasted buildings around Petrinja signalled the triumph. The "zone of separation" to the north - a product of a hopeless "peace plan" - was strewn with burnt out Serbian tanks and bombed check-points. A lone United Nations soldier peered out from his post to watch as Croat troops thundered past in armoured vans.

The beginning of the "return" was clear from the line of cars piled high with provisions waiting at a checkpoint to enter the town. These were Croats who had fled their homes four years ago ahead of the Serbian advance - just as their old Serb neighbours have fled in recent days. Smiling nuns waited patiently in a van giving the thumbs up sign to passers-by. Just hours after the last Serbian shell had ripped through the suburbs of the town, Croatian troops were struggling to remove the mangled remains of burnt out cars and shattered timber.

Dazed Croat families wandered around the wreckage of the town centre, looking for their former houses, wondering what life had been like here during their absence. Only the stoic Stefica Bocha could have told them. "At first when the Serbs arrived we hid. But then we came out like mice. All my neighbours left in fear but the Serbs didn't bother the old people. They paid my pension. I used to be an accountant in the municipality," she said.

Yesterday the returnees searched for their old Croatian street signs, which been ripped down and replaced by Serbian names. Stefica's road - Matija Gubec Street, named after a Croatian peasant leader, had been re- named Karadjordje Street - after a Serbian nationalist leader. "Now we can have our street name back," she smiled.

On one street corner yesterday a young man was re-erecting his sign over what had been his bakery and scouring the rubble inside to salvage his possessions. "I was baking bread here until three days before the Serbs came [in 1991]," he said. "The Serbs have been living here - just look," he said pointing to gaping holes in the walls and rubbish strewn around. "They have taken everything. They even took the light bulbs. But I will rebuild it all. The government will give me money. "

"We went to our village nearby but we couldn't find our house," said Sleo Graco, whose arm had been maimed by a mine in the 1991 fighting. He had bought his children to see the town, and to see the park where the Catholic Church of Saint Louvra once stood. It was destroyed by the Serbs along with scores of other churches throughout the occupied zone. "Little Vukovar" read the scrawled letters on the wall of a tottering block of flats.

"We had many Serbs in our village before the war - of course," said Mr Gaco. "We were friends then. But now they will never come back here again. It is not possible." His 11-year-old daughter smiled nervously. "I am happy we are back and that the Serbs have gone."

Already yesterday the soldiers were putting in the telephone lines to re-connect Petrinja to Croatia. A bus drove through from Zagreb for the first time in four years. 'Advocat Ana Ercejovac', said the sign above an office door which was flapping open in the breeze. Inside were strewn piles of Serbian registration documents, and lists of Serbian names, shortly to be swept away by the Croat cleaners to make way for the returning refugees.

On a street corner Croatian workmen were starting to rub out the Serbian victory insignia scrawled on the doors of shattered buildings.