The widow who refuses to yield to threats

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FOUR Serbs broke into the house of Vencislava Gostimir and said: 'You have 24 hours to get out of this house or we will slit your throat and throw you in the river.' That was a few months back, when the wave of 'ethnic cleansing' in the prosperous village of Hrtkovci in northern Serbia was at its height.

Vencislava, a forceful woman dressed in widow's black, still lives in Hrtkovci, defiantly refusing to budge. But nearly all the homes of her Croatian neighbours have now been taken by Serbs. A little corner of Croatia in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina has all but vanished. The name 'Hrtkovci' has been abolished; it is now 'Srboslavci' - 'place of Serbs'. The baroque Catholic church in the centre of the village is locked and deserted. The priest has fled.

The arrest of five Serbian militants, accused of leading the campaign to force out local Croats, on the orders of the new Prime Minister, Milan Panic, has created a crisis in Vojvodina. Hrtkovci is a crucial test of Mr Panic's claim that he will halt 'ethnic cleansing'. It is an ambitious claim. The policy is widely associated with Serbia's President Slobodan Milosovic.

The outcome in Hrtkovci may decide the fate of hundreds of towns and villages in Vojvodina, where Serbs, Hungarians, Croats and dozens of other communities, live cheek by jowl. A threat by the Serbian militants to put barricades round Hrtkovci if the five are not released has been postponed. But the village seethes with unrest. Angry Serbs mill around the streets all day holding meetings. Police roadblocks ring the village. The frightened Croats require round-the-clock police protection. So do some Serbs from the village, who have spoken out on behalf of their Croatian neighbours.

The Croats are mostly too frightened to speak out. Two men whom I tried to speak to ran away. 'Find out from someone else,' said one, hissing under his breath. 'We want to get out. That is all.' A young Croatian woman with a small child hurried indoors. 'We're not talking to anyone,' her husband shouted from the porch. The woman apologised. 'I am sorry, we have become frightened of our own shadows.'

The Serbian incomers who turned Hrtkovci into Srboslavci deny driving out the local inhabitants. They hold Mr Panic, who became a millionaire in America, responsible for the arrest of their leaders. 'All the Croats left of their own accord,' said Zoran Stojanac, a former Serbian fighter from Croatia. 'No one touched them and they wanted to go and live in Croatia anyway. This man Panic is not my president. He is just an American adventurer.'

Zoran is a penniless refugee. So is Vera, a middle-aged Serbian woman who fled to Hrtkovci from a village in Croatia. 'I left on the day my neighbours came and said that I and my children were Serbian Chetniks, who should be killed. We can never go home. It makes me furious when I hear that Serbs are accused of attacking Croatian homes. I am renting a room off a Hungarian woman and all I want is to exchange my home legally.'

She pointed to the town hall, where hundreds of notices flutter from the outside walls. The advertisements all offer deserted Serbian homes in Croatian villages in exchange for property in Hrtkovci. The offers include homes on the Dalmatian coast in Zadar, farms in Sisak and cafes and pubs in western Slavonia.

For the moment Mr Panic seems to have the upper hand. He looks determined to quash the kind of nationalist extremism which has flourished in Serbia under Slobodan Milosovic. Since Mr Panic became prime minister, the police in Hrtkovci have radically improved their behaviour towards non-Serbs, acting to protect the homes of Croats. Despite threats, the five militants remain behind bars. The angry Serbian immigrants of 'Srboslavci' fume impotently. The mostly elderly Croatians still in Hrtkovci say they have won a precious respite from threatening visits and telephone calls. 'You go back to Belgrade and tell Mr Panic he is a good man who has given us the courage to stay,' said one woman, who refused nevertheless to give her name.