`What was once home to 300 families is now a graveyard'

Sarah Helm reports from Krajina on the devastating aftermath of the Croat offensive `No way back for Serbs'
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The village of Kistanje, in what was Serb-held Krajina, is no more.

For two weeks, explosions blasted the streets; Croat soldiers and civilians in groups of four or five roamed the village, looting what they could, and then started big bonfires. House after house was set on fire. Finally yesterday, all was quiet, because there was nothing else to burn. What was once a prosperous, agricultural community of sturdy, proud, stone houses on tree-lined roads, home to 300 Serbian families, is a graveyard of gutted, blackened masonry and twisted timber.

In the two weeks which have elapsed since Croatia recaptured Krajina, village after village has been incinerated. In the southern sector, near the former Serb "capital" of Knin, United Nations monitors have classified 20 Serb villages as "completely destroyed" and as many - if not more - as "badly burned". The UN has reported similar destruction in the north.

Throughout the Bukovice valley, west of Knin, the air is filled with the stench of incineration and of rotting flesh. Strewn around are the carcasses of stiffened, rotting animals. On the road towards Kistanje yesterday lay the bloated bodies of a man and a woman, face down in a ditch. It seems they were killed in mid-flight - their shot-up trailer lay beside them.

Amid the carnage there is some life. Scattered among the houses are frightened herds of livestock. Cows stare our of blown-out windows, and piglets squawk in ditches. People appear occasionally from behind the wreckage..

There is no body-count, yet. But there are 96 neat wooden crosses on 96 neat mounds at a makeshift cemetery at Knin and more rows of crosses at a similar "cemetery" at Gracac. Yesterday, Croat workmen arrived with shovels to spread gravel on the top of the mounds. Some crosses had numbers, but there was no sequence. "252 NN", said one cross - apparently signifying that the body had "no name"."158 Sava Besevic" said another cross, next to "NN 170".

The mounds were built on top of giant troughs, say UN monitors who saw the diggers at work before the offensive begun. But nobody can know how many bodies lie beneath. And nobody can say how many bodies will be hurled into a second giant trough which yesterday was waiting to be filled.

It has been useful for US and some European politicians to view the Krajina offensive as quick and clean. The West's peace-makers argue that the Croat assault, however distasteful, may have laid the ground for a settlement. They want to believe the means used by Croatia will justify the end of lasting peace.

It has been important for Croatia to present its offensive in Krajina as a relatively clean war. President Franjo Tudjman promised the United States that his assault would not endanger civilians, and that human rights would at all times be observed. Croatia wants to build its relationship with the West, and particularly the European Union. President Tudjman says Serb refugees will be able to return to the area to live, along with Croats who fled from the Serbian assault in 1991.

Yet the destruction wrought in the past two weeks bears horrific testimony to Croatian determination to annihilate all trace of Serb life from the land - just as the Serbs sought to annihilate all Croat life by similar destruction four years before. The destruction makes a mockery of Western calls for a "right of return for refugees."

No one who has witnessed the carnage believes the refugees can return. There is nothing to return to. The carefully constructed dry stone walls, which may have stood for generations, still mark out patches of farmland, but in many areas the crops have been burned as well.

In areas that were spared burning, the grapes are ripening on the vines. But there will be no one here to gather them when harvest comes around in about two weeks time. More than 1,000 refugees - too old or petrified to join the mass flight which followed the assault - still wait at the UN compound in Knin for a convoy out to safety in Serbia or Serb-held areas of Bosnia.

As they pass the time in make-shift shelters they hear the news of their burning villages and they have learnt to give up any hope of returning to their homes.

"Individual acts", is how many Western diplomats have dismissed reports of burning and looting. But UN monitors and other humanitarian agencies are building up a dossier of what they term a "systematic" campaign of destruction.

The dossier contains an endless litany of horror, reported by teams of human rights monitors whose words go unheeded. The monitors complain their access has been barred by the Croat authorities. The reports cite eye- witness accounts of Croats in uniform and civilians near the scene of burning houses.

The UN has evidence of uniformed soldiers and civilians looting and vandalising property: "The entire village of Bobodol has been destroyed, 50 houses have been burned down." Burning houses were observed at the villages of Kaldrma, Siroka Kula, Serdari and Podgonje.

"A team found a dead woman at Ivonici, shot in the legs," says the same report.

At the village of Rajici: "ten houses have been destroyed". At Perna, 25 houses have been burned down. At Katinovac 26 houses "have been completely burned." In Cresmunica, the monitors reported 20 houses burned.

In Dugo Selo, seven houses were burned and one house destroyed by an explosion: "It is a fair assessment to say that Krajina is burning. Kistanje, Devrske, Otrie and other towns have become virtually unlivable."