Croats burn and kill with a vengeance

Robert Fisk in Kistanje finds 'ethnic cleansing' of the Krajina Serbs in full swing, with bodies piling up and buildings gutted

Every house in Kistanje has been destroyed by the Croat army; little bungalows, two-storey villas, Austro-Hungarian buildings of cut stone, the burnt ruins still blessed by the trees whose leaves have been autumned brown by the fires. No Serb will ever return here.

In the next village, Derveske, I found one house still burning, the flames creeping slowly along the roof. The Croats have plenty of time to complete their "ethnic cleansing" of the Krajina region now that the world's attention has been recaptured by the Bosnian inferno.

Villages without houses, a land without people. It is strange how natural it all seems, the overturned cars, the clothes lying on the street, the empty beer cans left by Croatia's supposedly elite troops, Budweiser and Karlovac lager and the occasional Heineken tins scattered over the gardens and roads. In the centre of Kistanje, a Croat drove a truck into the war memorial, smashing the Cyrillic names of Serb martyrs who could never guess - as they faced the Germans or their Croat allies in the Second World War - that their identity would finally be liquidated half a century after the civilised world conquered Nazism.

On the other side of Knin, on the road to Strmica, Edward Flynn, of the UN's Human Rights Action Team, and I came across a funnel of smoke on the other side of the abandoned railway line to Bihac. "We'll walk slowly because you have to be careful of what's on the road," he said as we padded beneath a low railway bridge to find a brand-new, two-storey villa being consumed by fire.

A mile further on, the stink of rotting flesh drifted past a wrecked bar. Only a few days before had the Croats bothered to remove the putrefying body of a Serb soldier, killed with a bullet to the back of the neck hours after Croatia's successful "liberation" of Krajina a month ago. The UN soldiers around Knin are finding the bodies of newly-murdered Serb civilians at the rate of six a day. It goes unreported, of course, because the world is watching Sarajevo.

In Grubori last week, the Croatian army's "special forces" carried out what it calls a "cleaning [sic] campaign" through the Plavno valley. Later, the UN found two elderly men dead, one with a bullet in the back of the head, the other with his throat horribly slashed. A certain General Cermac of the Croatian army announced that Grubori was a "Chetnik stronghold". Next day, the UN found three more Serb corpses, one of them a woman of 90.

Every time we stopped our car - on the Strmice road, in Kistanje or Derveske - civilian or Croatian police cars would arrive, their uniformed occupants watching us sullenly or asking the reason for our presence. No one, after all, wants to advertise their war crimes - even though the American ambassador back in Zagreb has announced that no "ethnic cleansing" has taken place here.

In Orlic on 26 August, two European Union monitors came across three Croatian soldiers setting fire to a farm. The flavour of the event is best gleaned from their official report. "We tried to discuss with them, but one of them loaded his weapon, saying that the fire was already put on [sic] yesterday. That was a perfect lie, since the fire had just started, but we preferred to escape." Everyone in Krajina prefers to escape save for the few remaining Serbs - perhaps only 5 per cent of the original Serb population. But last week's European Union assessment from Krajina - a confidential document that I have read in full - speaks for itself.

"Evidence of atrocities; an average of six corpses p/day, continues to emerge ... the corpses; some fresh, some decomposed, are mainly of old men. Many have been shot in the back of the head or had throats slit, others have been mutilated. Isolated pockets of elderly civilians report people recently gone missing or detained ... Endless [Croat] invitations for Serbs to return, guarantees of citizens' rights and property rights etc, have gushed forth from all levels ... However, Serbian homes and lands ... continue to be torched and looted.

"Contrary to official statements blaming it on fleeing Serbs and uncontrollable elements, the crimes have been perpetrated by the HV [Croatian Army], the CR [Croatian] police and CR civilians. There have been no observed attempts to stop it and the indications point to a scorched-earth policy."

History demands that the world should be reminded how the Serbs torched the homes of their Croat neighbours when they declared their independence from Croatia in 1991, and drove out the Croat residents of Krajina with identical intent: to prevent them from returning. But of course, Croatia - unlike the so-called and now defunct Serb Krajina Republic - wants to join the EU, wants its troops to receive European training (having already received help from the Americans) and wishes to share in European "democracy". And Croatia may well demand EU aid to help rebuild the schools and houses which its "elite" troops are burning in the fury of their "ethnic cleansing".

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