Croats torch all trace of Serbs in Krajina

Sarah Helm in Knin reports on the smouldering evidence of a campaign of ethnic cleansing

The village of Kistanje, in what was Serb-held Krajina, is no more.

For two weeks explosions blasted the streets; Croat soldiers and civilians in groups of four or five roamed the village, looting what they could, and then started big bonfires. House after house was set on fire. Finally yesterday, all was quiet, because there was nothing else to burn. What was once a prosperous, agricultural community of sturdy, proud, stone houses on tree-lined roads, home to 300 Serbian families, is a graveyard of gutted, blackened masonry and twisted timber.

In the two weeks which have elapsed since Croatia recaptured Krajina, village after village has been incinerated. In the southern sector, near the former Serb "capital" of Knin, United Nations monitors have classified 20 Serb villages as "completely destroyed" and as many - if not more - as "badly burned". The UN has reported similar destruction in the north.

Throughout the Bukovice valley, west of Knin, the air is filled with the stench of incineration and of rotting flesh. Strewn around are the carcasses of stiffened, rotting animals. On the road towards Kistanje yesterday lay the bloated bodies of a man and a woman, face down in a ditch. It seems they were killed in mid-flight - their shot-up trailer lay beside them.

Amid the carnage there is some life. Scattered among the houses are frightened herds of livestock. Cows stare our of blown-out windows, and piglets squawk in ditches. People appear occasionally from behind the wreckage; usually the bent figures of the very old.

There is no body-count, yet. But there are 96 neat wooden crosses on 96 neat mounds at an instant cemetary at Knin and more rows of crosses at a similar "cemetary" at Gracac. Yesterday Croat workmen arrived with shovels to spread gravel on the top of the mounds. Some of the crosses contained numbers, but there was no sequence. "252 NN", said one cross - apparently signifying that the body had "no name."

"158 Sava Besevic" said another cross, next to "NN 170."

The mounds were built on top of giant troughs, say UN monitors who saw the diggers at work before the offensive begun. But nobody can know how many bodies lie beneath. And nobody can say how many bodies will be hurled into a second giant trough which yesterday was waiting to be filled.

It has been useful for US and some European politicians to view the Krajina offensive as quick and clean. The West's peace-makers argue that the Croat assault, however distasteful, may have laid the ground for a settlement. They want to believe the "means" used by Croatia will justify the "end" of lasting peace.

It has been important for Croatia to present its offensive in Krajina as a relatively clean war. President Franjo Tudjman promised the United States that his assault would not endanger civilians, and that human rights would at all times be observed. Croatia wants to build its relationship with the West, and particularly the European Union. President Tudjman says Serb refugees will be able to return to the area to live, along with Croats who fled from the Serbian assault in 1991.

Yet the destruction wrought in the past two weeks bears horrific testimony to Croatian determination to annihilate all trace of Serb life from the land - just as the Serbs sought to annihilate all Croat life by similar destruction four years before. The destruction makes a mockery of Western calls for a "right of return for refugees."

Nobody who has witnessed the carnage believes the refugees can return. There is nothing to return to. The carefully constructed dry stone walls, which may have stood for generations, still mark out patches of farmland, but in many areas the crops have been burned as well.

In areas that were spared burning, the grapes are ripening on the vines. But there will be nobody here to gather them when harvest comes around in about two weeks time. More than 1000 refugees - too old or petrified to join the mass flight which followed the assault - still wait at the UN compound in Knin for a convoy out to safety in Serbia or Serb-held areas of Bosnia. As they pass the time in make-shift shelters they hear the news of their burning villages and they have learnt to give up any hope of returning to their homes.

"Individual acts", is how many Western diplomats have dismissed reports of burning and looting. But UN monitors and other humanitarian agencies are building up a dossier of what they term a "systematic" campaign of destruction.

The dossier contains an endless litany of horror, reported by teams of human rights monitors whose words go unheeded. The monitors complain their access has been barred by the Croat authorities. The reports cite eye- witness accounts of Croats in uniform and civilians near the scene of burning houses.

The UN has evidence of uniformed soldiers and civilians looting and vandalising property: "The entire village of Bobodol has been destroyed, 50 houses have been burned down." Burning houses were observed at the villages of Kaldrma, Siroka Kula, Serdari and Podgonje.

"A team found a dead woman at Ivonici, shot in the legs," says the same report.

At the village of Rajici: "ten houses have been destroyed". At Perna, 25 houses have been burned down. At Katinovac 26 houses "have been completely burned." In Cresmunica, the monitors reported 20 houses burned. In Dugo Selo, seven houses were burned and one house destroyed by an explosion: "It is a fair assessment to say that Krajina is burning. Kistanje, Devrske, Otrie and other towns have become virtually unlivable."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmReview: A week late, Secret Cinema arrives as interactive screening goes Back to the Future
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
artCultural relations between Sydney and Melbourne soured by row over milk crate art instillation
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago
filmBlue Is The Warmest Colour, Bojack Horseman and Hobbit on the way
Arts and Entertainment
Preparations begin for Edinburgh Festival 2014
Edinburgh festivalAll the best shows to see at Edinburgh this year
Two giraffes pictured on Garsfontein Road, Centurion, South Africa.
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleBenidorm, actor was just 68
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Morrissey pictured in 2013
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Commercial Property

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: KENT MARKET TOWN - An exciting new role has ar...

Financial Accountants, Cardiff, £250 p/day

£180 - £250 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Financial Accountants - Key Banking...

Regulatory Reporting-MI-Bank-Cardiff-£300/day

£200 - £500 per day + competitive: Orgtel: I am currently working on a large p...

Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

£18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices