Balkan home truths: how Croatia swindled its exiled Serbs

Dragoslav Dupor and his family abandoned the Krajina peninsula 10 years ago. Ethnically cleansed, they and thousands of others have now been robbed of their homes. Vesna Peric Zimonjic reports from Zagreb on a shocking epilogue to war

IT WAS an early summer morning, almost 10 years ago, when Dragoslav Dupor woke up to the sounds of Croatian artillery shells and terrified screams. He packed his wife, their three children, a young grandchild and his mother into an old Lada and fled. In the panic, they had no time to look back at what they were leaving in Karin Gornji, a Serb village on Croatia's Adriatic coast.

"I had no time to think if I would ever see my home again. I knew I had a long journey ahead," says Mr Dupor.

Like more than 300,000 Croatian Serbs, the 60-year-old and his family fled to Serbia proper at the onset of the Croatian army offensive in August 1995, codenamed "Storm". In the wake of the sudden exodus, 50,000 homes were left empty.

A decade on and the Dupor family are no closer to returning to their coastal home. Instead they, along with thousands of other refugees, are the apparent victims of a scam that has salted the open wounds left by the Yugoslav wars of succession and threatened to derail Croatia's attempt to take the fast track into the European Union.

When Operation Storm had blown over, the rebellion by local Serbs against the authority of the newly independent Croatia was crushed. The bloody rebellion, launched with the direct backing of Serbia's strongman Slobodan Milosevic, cost the lives of more than 20,000 people. The offensive ended Serb resistance but it also brought an abrupt end to hundreds of years of Serb history in Croatia. Many thought that when peace finally came they would be able to return to their former homes. Today that hope is gone.

Thanks to a scheme run by corrupt officials and organised-crime syndicates, the abandoned homes were bought up by the Croatian state and sold for a profit behind their backs without the families seeing a penny.

Mr Dupor's nice little house is now home to a family of Bosnian Croats, themselves refugess of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Their new home came to them via the state-run Agency for Legal Transactions and Mediation in Real Estate (APN).

Vladimir Goatti took charge of APN last September with a mandate to reform the agency. He admits that there is a serious case to answer. "All these people were victimised twice," he told The Independent. "We [APN and the Croatian state] have to find the least traumatising solution for their problems now ... And all the people will get their property back, without any discussion, once the courts settle the matter."

The agency has been in business since 1997 but involvement of some officials in illegally trading refugees' homes was not known of until last month. It is now being described as one of the biggest Balkan swindles; a cunning new variation on the theme of ethnic cleansing.

Since its formation, APN has spent more than Û200m (pounds 140m) on buying 8,380 Serb homes in areas of Krajina or Slavonija, abandoned in 1995. According to Milorad Pupovac, the head of the Serb caucus in the Croatian parliament, much of this money found its way into private pockets. "It is estimated that between Û4m and Û8m were skimmed in this operation and that the money went into private pockets, both of the intermediaries and the crooked employees of APN."

Thanks to visa restrictions on Serbs crossing into Croatia - which were only relaxed last year - most transactions between APN and Serbs willing to sell their property were done through the Serbia-based, private real- estate agencies representing Croatian Serbs. The Serb owners were compelled to sign power of attorney over to agents who would then strike a deal with APN. On the surface things worked well for years. Then Mr Dupor and his friend Desimir Draca, 66, decided the time had come to sell their former homes. They quickly discovered that there was nothing left to sell. The houses they fled from had already been sold using forged paperwork with a fake power of attorney. The files on Mr Dupor's home included an authorised agreement for sale issued in 2004, but signed by his mother, Cvijeta, who died in 1997, and an uncle who died 70 years ago.

"That was the last property that we had," both Mr Dupor and Mr Draca said. "We hoped to solve our families' housing problems in Serbia." Today they both live in Krnjaca, a shabby village outside Belgrade. The seaside village homes have been swapped for makeshift shelters with no bathrooms. Since 1995, both men have tried, with little success, to eke out a living by doing odd jobs. They both regard Serbia proper as a stepmother rather than the motherland. In Serbia, the scandal rocking the refugee community has been greeted with indifference. "We are grateful to Serbia for letting us stay here," says Mr Draca. "Apart from that we got nothing from this state."

Despite the growing scandal, the hundreds of destitute families and the millions of pounds, only one arrest has been made at the agency after it was established that it sold both the Dupor's and Mr Draca's homes, allegedly without their consent. The agency is alleged to have had three employees involved in transactions with the forged papers. They were all Serbs from Croatia with dual citizenship that enabled them to travel and work without restrictions, even when the visa regime was in force. Serb police are now investigating the work of several agencies in provincial Serbia and in Belgrade as well, after a complaints line established for refugees received many calls alleging fraud.

Investigators from Croatia are expected to arrive in Serbia any day now in the clearest act of cooperation for a decade. The Croatian Attorney General, Mladen Bajic, has promised to look into the matter personally.

Property agencies initially became involved with the property of Serbs who died either in exile in Serbia or at home in Croatia, after establishing that there was no procedure for determining legal inheritance of their holdings. With forged power-of-attorney papers, they sold the homes to APN.

The forgeries were certified by courts in Serbia, but it later emerged that the seals on court documentation were also forged. Investigators found you could buy the necessary seals for a pittance at Belgrade's flea- market. Once it became clear a profit was there to be made, agencies stopped waiting for people to die, forged the papers from start to finish.

The scale of the problem became apparent when officials came to evict Serbs who thought they were living in their own homes in villages in the Krajina region of Croatia. The officials presented startled homeowners with documents they had never seen containing their own signatures on sale agreements. In many cases there were double contracts, with a smaller sum being given to the vendor living in Serbia and a larger sum being put into the contract with APN. The smaller sum was given to the vendor, but APN paid the larger sum to the agent. The difference was split between the agent and crooked officials, it is alleged.

According to diplomats, Mr Goatti was appointed to the agency when rumblings reached Zagreb that officials were involved in cross-border crime worth million of euros. All contracts have now been reviewed, several employees are under investigation and the APN office in Osijek, east of Zagreb, has been closed. Mr Goatti and Mr Pupovac admitted that the practice of working through intermediaries had left a "wide margin for financial abuse". Mr Goatti admits that as many as half of the 8,380 Serb homes sold to APN were involved in the scam. Mr Pupovac says the figure is closer to 90 per cent.

"There are reasonable grounds for [believing] that the whole business [of illegal sales of Serb homes] was a clear case of organised crime that involved the government," a senior diplomat told The Independent. "It was a refined method of ethnic cleansing."

These claims are strongly denied by Mr Goatti.

Of the 300,000 Croatian Serbs who fled the country, only 115,000 have officially returned. The real number of returnees is thought to be as low as 30,000 as the official figures include those who returned only to claim a Croatian passport and did not re-settle.

This shift is reflected in the bigger population picture that includes Serbs who elected not to flee in 1995. Only 200,000 Serbs now live in Croatia - a country of 4.5 million - compared to 600,000 before the war.

"There's a problem of sustainability of returnees," says Axel Jaenicke from the Zagreb office of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe). "Two thirds of people who decide to return have no real means of support, as they are mostly old and live in rural areas".

Refugees have found themselves unwanted by either country. Croatia has been very slow, according to the OSCE, in providing basic living conditions for returnees. Of 186 Serb villages due to get electricity back again in 2004, only 20 did. The rest remain in the dark, as they have been for a decade.

The only glimmers of hope for those who want to return come from Croatia's push to join the EU, which should impose international standards for private property and minority on the fledgling state. But with membership talks due to start in March, many EU diplomats in Zagreb seem to be unaware of the property swindle.

"[The illegal sale] is not a key issue among the EU diplomats," said one senior embassy official from an EU country on condition of anonymity. He admitted to being unaware of it himself.

Despite optimistic noises from Brussels on Croatia's progress towards democracy and the rule of law, the judiciary system is still under international observation because its impartiality is often in doubt.

Croatia's President Stjepan Mesic, fresh from re-election, admitted that the property scandal could tarnish his country's image in the promised land of the EU. "Croatia has started the reform of its judiciary and I'm convinced it can solve the problem of the illegal sale of Serb property in accordance with the rule of law," he told The Independent. "Croatia is a country where all its people, regardless of nation, should be equal before the law."

Evidently, no one told court officials in Sisak, a town less than half an hour's drive from Mr Mesic's residence in the capital. Its Serb residents found themselves the target of a rip-off that echoes many of the crimes that have persisted like an ugly hangover from the war. A bank clerk was recently pardoned although found guilty of fraud in a crime that would normally result in the sack and jail. She took tens of thousands of pounds from accounts belonging to Croatian-Serb customers between 1992 and 1995. The scheme was discovered by a local Croat who noticed that money was being siphoned off for years while he lived in Zagreb, but the district court pardoned the clerk because: "she would never have committed the crime had she not been revolted by the deeds of Serbs".

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