Breakaway Serbs at end of the line: Refugees forced out of Croatia see no relief from their isolation, writes Robert Fisk from Knin

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The Independent Online
IN THE great railway station at Knin, the passenger timetable shows 50 departures a day; to Budapest, Zagreb, Sarajevo, Trieste and Vienna. The timetable is dated 1991, the year the Serbs of Krajina rose against the new Croatian government and created the 'Serb Krajina Republic'.

Which is why just five diesel trains now shunt their way across the international marshalling yards each day for the hour's run to Zrmanja, Sucevici, Kistanje and a host of dirt-poor villages no international traveller has ever heard of. Cut off by front lines, the railway tracks are as stunted as the prospects for the Serb 'republic's' people.

Sandra Milovic, chain- smoking away her day in a government office in Knin, put it rather well. 'I can't drive anywhere because there's nowhere to drive to. I can't take a train anywhere. There's no sea-port. When I came here as a refugee, I was very disappointed. There were no cultural events, no places to go. There isn't even a disco. I wonder that I didn't go mad in my first 18 months in Knin.'

The fact that she did not says a lot for Ms Milovic; for her story is as heart-breaking as her courage is impressive. She is a thoughtful, pretty, brown-haired woman of 23 with the wisdom of middle- age and the experience of a life-time.

'My parents and I lived at Sibenik on the Croatian coast, in a lovely apartment overlooking the sea,' she said. 'I was a student at Zadar University in Croatia when (the future President) Tudjman came to speak. After the lecture, I asked him why he talked of Croatia as a place only for Croats and not for Serbs as well. Next day, the head of our education department told me I would be expelled from the faculty if I dared to ask such questions again. That's when I began to realise there would be no democracy for us.'

Ms Milovic's father was head of the local Sibenik civil defence organisation but lost his job, Sandra says, when Mr Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union came to power. 'It was terrible for him to be fired, just like that, because he was a Serb. . . nobody wanted to see him or say 'hello'. It was terrible when suddenly none of our Croatian neighbours would visit us anymore. At the university, one of my Croatian professors shouted at me in a lecture: 'Hey girl, what are you Chetniks doing here?' I had a boyfriend for three years. He was a Croat. When I was in his company, his friends wouldn't talk to him. His family would say: 'She's Serb - you can find another girl who's more convenient for you]' So in 1991, we had to say goodbye to each other.'

Ms Milovic, along with her two sisters and mother, moved into the house of an aunt - who was married to a Croat - for protection. 'I had to give up university because my sisters were also being educated and we couldn't all live on my mother's salary. Then my father was arrested in the street by the Croatian army and forced to negotiate for them with the Yugoslav National Army, which was still in Sibenik. Then they threw him into a camp.

'You can't imagine what it was like to leave my home town. Before this situation, I didn't even know or feel I was a Serb. I didn't have a Serbian accent. I didn't celebrate the Serb Orthodox Christmas.'

When the Yugoslav army withdrew from Sibenik, Ms Milovic and her family, with thousands of other Serbian refugees, fled with them. 'We had only two bags. We had to go down a long street where all the Croats were waving flags. They threw stones at us and spat on the cars. The men exposed themselves. They escorted us like animals. My father was released and we exchanged houses with a family in Knin - the man who lived in our house didn't want to leave so he killed himself. He cut his throat with a broken bottle, in the house I live in now.'

Ms Milovic laughed when she recounted how the man died. All over Croatia and Bosnia, whenever people told us of the horrors they had endured, they laughed. It was an unsettling phenomenon, half- defensive, half-cruel.

Ms Milovic found that Knin did not have a public library, let alone the books she would need to finish a degree. 'If you do nothing, you lose your knowledge, you cannot develop yourself intellectually. The other day, we had a meeting with the French, German and British ambassadors, who told us they would never recognise our republic - but that we would receive 'cultural autonomy' from Croatia. But do you think after all the massacres and killings we can live together? It is too late for the Croats and for us. Serbs are obsessed with the past. Croats are too.'

Ms Milovic could think of the future only in days, rather than weeks or months. 'In a few days, some of my friends in the TV and I are going to Greece for a holiday,' she said. 'We can go to Belgrade but Greece is the only country that will give us visas. Think of it, 10 days in Greece - it's enough time to relax.'