Serbs fall prey to 'ethnic swapping'

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ON A ROADSIDE in the village of Kula, in central Croatia, an old man waits with his head in his hands, a little bag beside him. He was a Serb, one of Kula's last Serbian inhabitants. From the rooftop of the home in which he had lived since the end of the Second World War, a Croatian flag flies. The new occupants are a young Croatian couple from Hrtkovci, a Croatian village in northern Serbia whose inhabitants have been forced out of their homeland.

A wave of explosions and shootings outside the houses of the Serbs of Kula has now forced almost all to agree to exchange their homes with Croats fleeing from Hrtkovci.

A 70-year-old widow, Marija, said the wave of terror began at the end of last year. 'Some people arrived from Osijek and announced that all the Serbs had to go. They said that we were colonisers. I had a couple of bullets through my windows as well. But in the end no one took my house. They said it was not good enough.'

Piles of rubble and plaster bear testimony to to the fate of those Serbian families who resisted the invitation to move. The evening before I visited the village, one more house was mysteriously blown up. In the region, almost 200 houses have been destroyed, but no one has been apprehended by the Croatian authorities. Several houses in the village of Kula have been razed. Many others have lost their windows. 'There cannot be 10 houses in Kula which have not had their windows blown out,' said Marija.

For Marija, the ethnic change in the composition of her village, from 90 per cent Serbian to 90 per cent Croatian, has been a shock. 'Until this war began we all got on very well. We went to their festivals and they came to ours. Now everyone around me is from this place called Hrtkovci, which I never even heard of before. I am ready to pack my bags tomorrow if they order me to go, but where am I to go to? I have never been to Serbia in my life. Surely I'm too old to go now.'

The few Serbian survivors in Kula are very reluctant to give their names. 'It's even worse for the Serbs in the villages outside,' one woman confided. 'Where my parents live, dozens of houses have been blown up. In Kula at least, most people have legally exchanged their homes with Croatian refugees from Hrtkovci.'

Most people from Hrtkovci miss their old village. All insisted they would have remained for ever in Serbia if Vojislav Seselj, leader of the neo-fascist Radical Party, had not come to Hrtkovci and read a proclamation ordering the non-Serbian inhabitants to quit Serbia.

'The local Serbs in Hrtkovci had nothing to do with it,' one old man insisted. 'They were just fine towards us. They tried to protect us. It was the outsiders who destroyed the village.'

One of the handful of young Serbs in the village detected a certain irony in the forced exchange. 'The people who are forced out of Kula never thought of themselves as Serbs but as Slavonians or Yugoslavs. As for the people who have come in, they do not even speak our language. They call themselves Croats, but they speak Serbian. We speak Croatian but now we have to go and live in Serbia.'