Only when you notice the pile of estate agent's photographs on the secretary's desk, each labelled 'two-storey house, Banja Luka', do you realise that Mr Dragan Dragistic's real estate company is a little out of the ordinary. He helps his clients swap their houses - for a commission, of course - and enables Muslims and Croats to leave Bosnia, Serbs to go there. Mr Dragistic takes Visa cards. 'Even American Express,' he adds helpfully. Who could have devised so ingenious a system: ethnic cleansing by credit card.
Mr Dragistic is a 36-year-old Serb - 'I don't feel completely safe here, but I'm not afraid of dying,' he says disarmingly - who is, on average, telephoned by customers every two minutes. Moving populations across front lines is an exhausting business and Mr Dragistic drips perspiration in his cramped office. 'I work hard because my clients implore me to help them,' he announces. 'I do everything I can. Yes, we help people to exchange their houses. We help the two sides to reach agreement and draw up the relevant documents containing the value of the homes. We show them photographs or videotapes of the properties and they agree to swap. Then they move across.'
His secretary brings in two sheets of paper. On the first page are two photocopies of details about a two-storey villa in Banja Luka, on the other a coloured snapshot of an almost identical house at Jagodina, outside Zagreb. A certain Mr Jakovlevic, a Serb, wishes to exchange the Jagodina house for the Banja Luka villa. The owners of the Banja Luka house - Croats - would like to move to Jagodina. When the deal is struck - through the good offices of Mr Dragistic and an estate agency in Banja Luka, called 'Euroraz' and run by a lady called Branka Radinovic - the two families will cross the front lines at Novska. On buses helpfully provided by Mr Dragistic.
'I want to tell you something.' Here, Mr Dragistic leans forward across his desk, finger gesticulating for effect. 'In normal conditions - when there was no war - there were five or six times the number of people buying or selling houses in Zagreb and Banja Luka.
'They travelled by cars and at least 20 buses went back and forth each week. Then suddenly it was all stopped by the fighting. Many people were moved, of course' - not for a moment does Mr Dragistic appear embarrassed by the word 'moved' - 'but we have to help people. They really need my help.' But is Mr Dragistic not merely assisting in the process of ethnic cleansing, since he is transferring ethnic populations with the permission of the Serbian authorities in Banja Luka - and presumably with the encouragement of the Croatian government which allows his office to operate in Zagreb?
'Look, we can indirectly find a relationship between war and what you call ethnic cleansing. But every war causes political emigrations. The result here is that the population of one group is left with no jobs - so their only choice is to move to another region. I don't have any power to influence these things. But these people come, they implore me to help them. What can I do?'
Listening to Mr Dragistic, you might be excused for thinking that he is explaining the problems of regional unemployment. Ask about the profits to be had from 'political emigrations' - and watch that phrase, for we shall surely hear it again - and he excuses himself, walks into his secretary's office and whispers in Serbo-Croat: 'Can't you stop these pests coming in here to ask messy questions?' Then he returns, all smiles.
The profits, Mr Dragistic is happy to say, are negligible - between 1 and 3 per cent commission on the value of each house exchanged, the sum calculated in German marks and paid with cash or credit card. Mr Dragistic says the bus trip costs DM60 (pounds 21) and houses are rarely valued above DM50,000.
Humanitarian organisations say that refugees crossing the front lines outside Novska on Mr Dragistic's buses are paying 1,600 Deutchmarks for the trip - and villas outside Zagreb are fetching 100,000 Deutschmarks. By Mr Dragistic's calculations, therefore, the highest turnover from an exchange of both homes would come to no more than pounds 1,100, including travel. More realistic figures would suggest a sum nearer to pounds 3,000.
He has a hundred families on his books just now, waiting to move south-east to Serbian-held Bosnia, 95 per cent of them Serbs. Another hundred are waiting to move north-west to Croatia, most of them Muslims and Croats, some of them destined to travel on to Germany. Mr Dragistic poses at his desk for a photograph before the documents of property transaction, an earnest bureaucrat trying to sort through the unhappy detritus of war. 'In my heart,' he says, 'I feel like a cosmopolitan. I think that a great injustice has been committed to all people by all governments and this hurts me - it really hurts me. But I can't turn these people away.'Reuse content