Croats take revenge on Serbs by phone

Bad blood still runs deep in a town in no man's land, reports Adrian Bridge
Vukovar - A few years ago, the Serbs used threats and guns to drive Croats out of their homes, in the region surrounding Vukovar, in what was then eastern Croatia. Now, the boot is on the other foot. Hundreds of Serb families living in houses once occupied by Croats have been receiving threatening telephone calls from the former owners.

"We have been called several times in the middle of the night and told that our children will be killed, said Darko Kovacevic, a Serb who runs one of the little cluster of bars that have emerged from the debris on the main street of Vukovar. "Before the war, we Serbs and Croats did manage to get on, but now there is just too much bad blood."

It is difficult not to double-take when Miroslav Keravica, the Serb Mayor of Vukovar, outlines his vision of the town's future. Speaking just yards from scenes of the worst destruction seen in Europe since the Second World War, he declares his aim to help create a "genuinely multi-ethnic society" and a town whose doors will be "open to all".

Before the war between Croatia and Serbia in 1991, Vukovar was a prosperous town with a mixed population.

But the scars of battle run deep, and for many of those involved - particularly in the siege of Vukovar itself - the memories are still far too painful for talk of reconciliation.

"The first Croat to come back to this town will be dead. I personally will pull the trigger," said Slobodan Vindik, a Serb veteran of the 1991 conflict in which 90 per cent of Vukovar was destroyed by besieging Serb paramilitaries and the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, and which ended with some 80,000 Croats being forced to flee after Vukovar and the entire eastern Slavonia region fell into Serb hands.

Under the terms of an agreement hammered out alongside the Dayton peace accords last November, eastern S1avonia, the last slice of Croatian territory still held by rebel Serbs, is to be reincorporated into Croatia following a transitional period under a United Nations military authority.

The plan also envisages the return of all the Croats expelled following the 1991 fighting, ideally in conjunction with the return of the tens of thousands of Serbs who fled to eastern Slavonia from other parts of Croatia over the past five years.

Officials with the 5,000-strong UN force based in Vukovar acknowledge that it is a daunting task, but insist they wish to prevent a re-run of what happened last year when Croat forces retook the Krajina enclave, sparking a mass exodus of Serbs. "We are slowly trying to rebuild confidence ... and to retain the multi-ethnic character of the region," said Jacques Klein, the American head of the UN transitional authority.

Since establishing their headquarters in Vukovar earlier this year, the UN forces point to a number of successes, most strikingly the removal of all heavy artillery from the region, the demobilisation of more than 10,000 men-in-arms and the peaceful takeover of the oil fields close to Vukovar, previously held by a Serb militia.

In addition, telephone connections with Croatia proper have been restored, as have postal services and - despite the fact that borders are not yet properly open - rail and road links. Serbs and Croats, moreover, have been jointly attending police training courses.

Mutual suspicions abound. Local Serb leaders holding positions in what they still term the "Republic of Serbian Krajina" are horrified at the prospect of the transfer of power to Zagreb and are set to appeal for a one year extension of the UN's 12-month mandate in the region, set to expire in January.

Some Serbs recently staged a street protest in Vukovar to press demands for substantial autonomy in any future Croatian state - including the rights to retain their own flag, currency and anthem. Such talk is a red rag to Zagreb, which for its part is pressing for the earliest possible transfer of sovereignty. In theory, that could be as soon as January, one month after the staging of local elections, which are themselves a source of friction between the two main sides. In practice, the UN forces are likely to remain in place for some time to come.

"With the UN here we feel we have some kind of protection" said Nikola Pajie, a 60-year-old Serb who sells his home-grown pears in the Vukovar market place. "Maybe we could all live together again but we Serbs are very worried about the future. It all depends on how the Croats behave when they take over."