'Christian culture' chugs back into Krajina

Robert Fisk takes the Croatian train through the former Serb-held region

The Marjan Express leaves Zagreb crack on 6am, a Boy's Own Paper train of 16 blue carriages pulled by a humming electric loco that plunges into the misty fields towards Karlovac. And for the first few hours, before the train is divided and pulled by an older, dirtier diesel on to darker, more sinister tracks, it could be any main-line Balkan express. Yet even the passengers, topped up with slivovitz and beer in the buffet car, were to fall silent as we entered the badlands.

Maybe we should have been warned of what was to come from the brochure Croatian Railways provided for its first-class passengers. ''Travelling by this train," it announced in halting English, ''will enable you to get acquainted with the beautiful scenery of our country and the rich history of Croat people that through ages fought for its existence and stood in defence of European culture and entire Christianity."

Culture and Christianity, of course, was not exactly what we were going to see. We were a mixed bunch in our compartment, a Croatian emigrant to Canada going to Split to see his brother, a woman returning to her home in the same city, and two brothers and their cheerful, elderly mother, venturing into the newly ''liberated'' Krajina to re-discover lands they owned but could never - under Serb rule - visit near Knin. We had no sooner passed the first ruined house outside Karlovac before the old lady was drawing in her breath. By the time we reached Plavca, she was peering at the shell-holes and burned roofs and thinking of those who once lived here. ''I suppose there are still some of them around," she said. "Don't worry," one of her sons replied. "Our army is here."

Could one miss them? The train had been divided at Ogulin, a grubby old diesel tugging us eastwards, into the land that was, until a month ago, the ''Serb Republic of Krajina''. On ruined stations stood Croatian policemen with automatic rifles and dark glasses, troops sleeping among the ripped-up sidings, the booking halls and waiting rooms blackened by fire. Even where the stations had been destroyed, at Javornik, west of the Plitvice lakes, for example - the Cyrillic station sign had been replaced by a one in Latin script - an equally new Croatian flag had been draped over the shell of the building. My companions stared from the window, looking, I suppose, for the Serbs who lived in the devastated villages on either side of the track, unable to comprehend that the Serb towns had been so comprehensively looted and torched by the Croatian army of European culture and Christianity of which the brochure boasted, that no Serb would ever return. The old lady drew in her breath again. The emigrant to Canada reminded me that this had been done to the Croats of Krajina in 1991. The thoughtful woman opposite asked her companions why among Serb intellectuals only Bogdan Bogdanovic, the former mayor of Belgrade, had ever raised his voice against Serb aggression.

It was a dead land, gutted houses lying foolishly besideplantations and orchards dripping with unpicked fruit. We kept looking for people we knew were no longer there, our eyes travelling up tree-lined peaceful driveways to burned family cars and torched homes.

The railway track, originally laid by engineers of the Austro-Hungarian empire on the eve of that infamous Sarajevo shot and completed 75 years ago by the young and doomed Kingdom of Yugoslavia, wound its way along mountain ledges, into tunnels, across marshland and always - inevitably - across viaducts above stone houses without roofs, between embankments of ruined homes, through cuttings below smashed cottages. If this was once the wild frontier that protected ''Christian'' Europe from the ''Islamic'' Ottomans, it was clear that it would remain this way in the imagination of its passengers, a land of ghost villages.

Hatred lay along the permanent way. Croatian Railways had produced another glossy booklet to coincide with the reopening of the line to Split, referring to Serbs as ''terrorists'' who were ''ignorant of and hostile to the very concept of culture,'' castigating them for the ''savage aggression'' they launched to support ''the insane hegemonic policy of Greater Serbia''. The Serbs had paid for it now, by heavens. And the passengers of the Marjan Express crowded the corridors to watch the old Serb lands of Krajina in ruins.

On reflection, it was an odd and obscene thing for us to do. Safe in our polished carriages, creatures from the safe mittel-europa of Zagreb, we drank scalding coffee from china beakers as we moved at a stately 25mph through this landscape of destruction. Sometimes, far away, a funnel of grey smoke would wander upwards into the still air as the heroic and victorious forces of Croatia set fire to another farm.

At one point, our train travelled the length of an old front line, abandoned Croatian snipers' positions and dug-outs hugging the very edge of the sleepers, until we turned east again, past a station whose walls were pitted with bullet holes and shrapnel gashes. That was when the emigrant to Canada offered us his sandwiches and his plastic bag of sweet white Macedonian grapes.

Just outside Knin, we slowed down, the wheels screaming against the curve of the track, the driver breaking his whistle into a long wail of conquest.

Beside us, trailing down the scree of a great escarpment, lay the wreckage of a Serb armoured train, wagons and heavy machine-guns and tank turrets mangled together. How the passengers loved it. They leaned from the windows with their video-cameras to record this destruction and the group of Croat soldiers who blew kisses from atop an old truck and the acres of burned Serb homes further on. Yes, they went on filming this, too, a home movie for future generations, of the eastward march of Christian civilisation through the Krajina.

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