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Ethnic cleansing is nothing to do with us, say Serb killers and civilians alike

THE FAT MAN in the maroon beret, wearing ludicrous camouflage sunglasses and a permanent pearly grin, gave his name as Joker. The plump skinheads on either side of him listened reverently, and occasion- ally stroked their guns.

We were having a coffee together, outside something called the Duty Free Shop. The Duty Free Shop, which is not at an international border, is stacked high with cartons of cheap cigarettes. Joker was unwilling to confirm the widely held belief that Serbian paramilitaries are active smugglers in their spare time.

He was quite a philosopher. His first question was: "Why does the world want to erase all Serbs?" Then, as a follow-up, he noted that the war had nothing to do with conflicts between Serbs, Croats and Muslims, but was all about the battle between the Deutschmark and the dollar. Joker also noted: "I'm a pacifist. I'd like the war to be finished tomorrow."

The circumstances of our conversation cast doubt on this commitment to pacifism. Outside the cafe were three black mini- buses, decorated with the symbol of a fiery tiger - the same tiger Joker and his young skinheads wore on their sleeves. The tiger is the symbol of Arkan, one of Serbia's most notorious paramilitary leaders. We were at Arkan's headquarters, in the town of Erdut, in what used to be eastern Croatia, now run by the Serbs. Just a few hundred yards up the road is the local UN headquarters. But the UN tries to ignore the presence of Arkan: he is not a man to be trifled with.

Joker said: "I want children to be able to go to school without fear of bombs." Then he got on to more familiar ground, when he waxed eloquent on the dreadfulness of Muslims. He said: "We're fighting for a little piece of land, where we can be Serbs."

At least, I suggested, Serbs no longer faced the problem of living alongside Muslims, in areas where Arkan's forces had been. After all, Arkan's forces were responsible for some of the most outrageous ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Joker looked mock-astonished at the suggestion that Arkan's Tigers had made life difficult for civilians. He said, with a contradict-me-if-you- dare smile: "Their own government decided to move them."

In Joker's case, this was a lie. He knew the truth and he was happy to deny it. The Muslims' fate - expulsion or death - was indeed just a joke. But the Arkans and Jokers of this world cannot survive in isolation. More unsettling is the fact that many ordinary Serbs believe they have been the main victims of this war.

Two hundred thousand Serbs have been driven out of their homes by recent Croat advances. The human suffering has been enormous. Not surprisingly, Serbs feel angry at what has happened. But if, while emphasising that you share their indignation, you ask about the ethnic cleansing the Serbs were responsible for in the past few years, you get a blanket denial. As one young woman insisted: "The Croats and Muslims moved out voluntarily." Unlike Joker, this woman was neither cynical, nor murderous. But she, too, was determined to believe in the myth of Serbian innocence.

It is a disturbing phenomenon - as much for liberal Serbs as for the foreign outsider. In the words of Gordana Igric, Serbian editor of the independent Alternative Information Network: "It's a gap in the head. If you believe Serbs did nothing wrong, that helps you to survive. If you say the most important thing was the Second World War - that means you don't want to see what happened yesterday. Some people don't know what happened. Maybe it's like the Germans in the Second World War. Maybe it will take 10 years or more for them to see the truth."

Even in the places where you would expect to find independent thought, you can often be disappointed. Underground, by the film-maker Emir Kusturica, has been showing to packed houses in Belgrade. The film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, is visually striking and full of astonishing and powerful scenes. By the end, though, you could see why Serbian Television felt able to sponsor the film. The Yugoslav wars are shown as the result of unpredictable madness.

The audience appeared to like the film. But few felt that Serbs carry any burden of responsibility for what has happened. Mirjana, a 32-year- old architect, was not untypical in believing that the blame lay elsewhere: "I think [the war] is just a game, that the big countries are playing with us."

There is little hint (unlike, say, in Hungarian and Polish films during the last years of communism) that politicians might bear partial responsibility for the madness that has engulfed the country. That, in turn, points to a crucial difference between eastern Europe in the 1980s and Serbian society today. Television news in communist eastern Europe told brazen lies, just as Belgrade TV news does today. But few in eastern Europe truly believed the communists. The main brake on dissent was simple fear.

In Serbia, by contrast, there is little fear. Secret police do not lurk round every corner. Mr Milosevic's grip on the media has created a picture far removed from reality - but which many accept as if it were reality. This achievement is even more dangerous, perhaps, than fatman Joker, with his killer smile.