Croat death camp gives hate a new twist: In the first of a series, Robert Fisk, recently in the former Yugoslavia, describes a visit to Jasenovac, where hundreds of thousands of Serbs perished in the Second World War

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The Independent Online
A SOFT, fine rain fell over Jasenovac. Milan, the huge Serbian policeman who was trailing us with two colleagues in a battered blue militia car, turned on his windscreen wipers as we drove down the narrow road beside the old Belgrade-Zagreb railway line.

It was uncomfortable to be followed here, in a place of hatred which was intended to commemorate hatred, where a civil war which was supposed to have ended 50 years ago had burst out of the ground to destroy what was left of one of the Second World War's nastiest exter mination camps.

The village is a ghost town of overgrown streets, burnt shops, shattered cottages and a Roman Catholic church in yellow stucco and white trim with its roof blown off. A ferryman oars his boat over the waters of the Sava to replace the dynamited motorway bridge. Beyond him, the Sava, alive only with the sound of river-birds, slides quietly past the gutted museum of Jasenovac, the grassy mound which represents the crematorium and the railway spur which carried up to 700,000 men, women and children into this place of horror in the Second World War.

Many of them - and this is history - were hacked to death with axes or beheaded with saws. The women were often handed over to professional butchers who hacked them to death with knives. Most of the victims were Serbs, many were Jews. The killers were Croats.

Which is why the Serbian militia car, puttering along behind us in the rain, made a visitor from Croatia a little ill at ease. Why would a foreigner wish to visit the remains of a Second World War concentration camp, let alone one which now lay scarcely a mile from the front line in Serb-held Croatia? Milan climbed out of his car uneasily when we reached the museum. The double-headed Serb eagle on his cap badge, the manner in which his leather belt clasped his powder and royal blue blouse over his trousers, the way in which the trousers were tucked into his boots, gave him a curious appearance: half Cossack, half secret policeman.

Milan wanted to know why had I come here. And when I told him - that I had last visited this terrible place in 1988, when I was investigating the wartime Balkan activities of the Wehrmacht lieutenant and later Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, that I had returned because I heard the camp's memorial had been destroyed in this new Balkan war - he scribbled it all down in a little notebook, as if I was the policeman and he was the reporter. 'Well, this is what the Ustashe did before they left,' he said, gesturing towards the broken glass of the damp, empty museum, instantly associating his modern Croatian enemies with the Nazi murderers of Jasenovac. The Ustashe were Nazi Croatia's militia.

When the 1991 conflict caught up with Jasenovac, it was in Croatian hands, but the Serbs crossed the Sava and captured the old killing fields. Not surprisingly, they found the fleeing Croatian forces had wrecked the museum. Perhaps they did not have time to destroy the railway spur and its symbolic old steam locomotive which still stood on its track half a mile away. The commemorative plaques are still in place; so, too, is Bogdan Bogdanovic's monument to the dead, a massive concrete tulip erected close to the crematorium.

Milan followed us down the wooden path. He pointed to the cone of land covered in grass to the left of the monument. 'My uncle was thrown alive in the crematorium there,' he said. His colleagues caught up with him.

Pero was slimmer, with hard Slav features, in the same uniform as Milan but clearly his commander.

'My wife's parents were both killed here,' he said. 'This is a continuation of the Second World War. The war stopped for 45 years because the Croatians needed time to prepare their second genocide of the Serbs.'

We entered the base of the huge 'tulip'. 'If Bogdanovic built a memorial now, it would be different,' Milan said. 'In those days, he had to build it so it wouldn't offend the Croats.' Perhaps he had a point. While the Serbs and Croats each claim that the other maintained hegemony over the old Yugoslavia, the commemorative plaques around Jasenovac are written in Latin script. A young Serb called Mile who joined the two policemen had difficulty in reading the inscriptions to the murder of his own Serbian people - because they were not written in his own Cyrillic script. One of them referred to the 'flash of the knife' which killed so many innocents here - but discreetly failed to identify the wielder of the knife.

In the derelict film theatre, a few panoramic photographs remained on the wall; a column of Serbian civilians marching under guard to the camp, three Croatian Ustashe militiamen sawing off a man's head and a German army major drinking with the camp commander. 'Our parents made the mistake of forgiving the Croats for what they did in the Second World War,' Pero said. 'We must never make that same mistake again. We owe this to our children. I haven't seen my own wife and children for more than two years - they are cut off from me in Croatia, on the other side of the line. I haven't seen my own baby son yet.'

We later met the archivist of the self-declared 'Serb Republic' in Banja Luka who said that, while he feared most of the wartime Ustashe documents in the Zagreb archives had been destroyed by the Croats, the contents of the Jasenovac museum had been largely saved by the Serbs after the Croat retreat.

But this would not lay the camp's ghosts. In April, a delegation of Jews from Croatia applied to visit Jasenovac to lay wreaths to their own dead at the camp memorial and the Serbs agreed on a list of names. But when the delegation arrived, the Serbs complained that four of the names had been changed.

The United Nations, whose Jordanian battalion is camped outside Jasenovac and which handled the abortive meeting, confirmed that three of the visitors turned up in military uniform. One of them was believed to be a general in the Croatian army.

'What could we do?' a UN officer asked. 'The delegation said it was all of them or nothing, and the Serbs refused. So the Jews threw their wreaths into the River Strug on the other side of the front line. They never reached the camp.'

War on history, page 18

(Photograph and map omitted)