Home of ethnic cleansing faces empty future

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The Independent Online
A CRISIS facing the United Nations in former Yugoslavia - what to do with the Serbian-controlled Krajina region in Croatia - may end up solving itself. The Serbian media have reported an exodus of Serbs to Belgrade of 'drastic proportions', which threatens to turn this mountainous land into a human desert.

The irony is Krajina pioneered ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. Since armed Serbs seized control of the region from Croatia two years ago and proclaimed the Republic of Serbian Krajina, 300,000 Croats have been expelled. Now even those Serbs responsible for the cleansing are leaving.

The pro-government paper Politika says an exodus among Serbs from Krajina to Belgrade, has reached 'drastic proportions', and includes many of the radical Serbian nationalist leaders who started the uprising against Croatia in August 1990. The paper says the pace of emigration threatens this old Serbian heartland in Croatia with 'the Kosovo syndrome': the virtual disappearance of the original Serbian population.

If the Yugoslav civil war can be said to have started anywhere, it was in the town of Knin in Krajina two years ago. Backed by the Yugoslav army and the Serbian government, local Serbians sealed off the region and began a kind of blitzkrieg, which led to the capture of one third of Croatia's territory. Krajina was proclaimed a republic and about 300,000 Croats were kicked out.

Since the UN peace plan at the beginning of this year made Krajina a UN-protected zone, its hardline Serbian nationalist leaders have exulted in an apparent victory. While Zagreb fumed about its loss of control, the expulsion of Croats continued under the noses of the UN peace-keepers.

But the Serbian victory is starting to look Pyrrhic. Cut off from the Croatian seaports, and economically strangled by Croatia, Krajina has begun to die. In Knin, the only large town, the biggest employer was the railway system. But no trains have run for two years. In northern Krajina, where the largest employer and money-spinner was Plitvice national park, the turnstiles rusted long ago.

Even the local politicians, who led the rebellion against Croatia in August 1990, are packing their bags and heading for Serbia. According to Politika, the Krajina prime minister is one of many local bigwigs who are hurriedly building luxurious homes in Belgrade, as an insurance against a dubious future. The flight from Krajina owes much to uncertainty over whether the region will be returned to Croatia or remain in a UN-protected limbo.

A big factor is the collapse of law and order in Krajina following the expulsion of the Croatian authorities. Politika says the situation resembles 'a kind of primitive anarchy', with no recognisable legal system or police force.

The war in Bosnia has increased Krajina's isolation. The fighting has cut off all land routes to Krajina, except for a narrow corridor through northern Bosnia.

At the same time, the rise of a moderate Serbian leadership in Belgrade under Milan Panic, the Prime Minister, threatens Krajina's leaders with political isolation. Mr Panic has little time for these Milosevic minions and appears willing to recognise Croatia within its pre-war borders. The outlook is bleak for the Knin fighters, once venerated in Belgrade and nicknamed 'the Knindjas'.

(Photograph omitted)

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