Face-to-face with ethnic cleansers

Column of smoke draws UN team to stand-off with three young Croats torching Serb homes
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The Independent Online
Subotici, Croatia - It isn't every day you get to chat to an "ethnic cleanser" in ex-Yugoslavia. But there they were, three young Croat men in their twenties, one slurping on a pomegranate, another looking soulful, the third more cocky, because he had an AK-47, with a full clip of ammunition, dangling down his back, the strap round his neck.

"We are part of the cleaning operation," he smirked, when confronted by an Irish policewoman and a Royal Navy lieutenant outside the Serb farm he had just set on fire.

We had spotted the smoke from 10 miles away, minutes after leaving Babici, where the brains and much of the blood of 82-year-old Sava Babic still lay on the seat of her Serb family's yellow Volkswagen.

Neighbours said that a Croat police vehicle had been seen near the Babic house at the time of the old woman's murder - "this terrible crime," UN General Forand called it, when he pointlessly demanded an explanation of a Croat General, Ivan Cermak, military governor of Knin. Village after village we drove through, pigs dead in the road, cows slaughtered in the yard, the smell of corpses wafting in from the karst stone fields.

"It's a house; you can tell from the colour of the smoke," Lieutenant Simon Coley said, staring through binoculars at the thick grey curtain rising from Mount Srnopas.

He pulled out a map where the name "Subotici" lay at grid reference WJ 71.68.24. An Irish Garda, Bridin O'Rourke, thought correctly that it lay on the other side of a valley. We spent an hour and a half driving up mountain roads in an effort to reach it.

Only after we had stopped in a village that smelled of death, "Zeljo Brekic" it said on the gate of one house, the home trashed over, the goats shot dead in the street, did we find a metalled road that led up to Subotici.

The UN has developed a weary routine. Their officers log every act of arson and murder - deliberate and consistent - by the Croat army and police against the surviving, elderly Serbs of Krajina, and wait for the Croats to act. But the Croats refuse to acknowledge the truth, hoping that with the blind eye of the US ambassador to Zagreb, Peter Galbraith, who has called the Serbs who lived here for generations "so-called local Serbs" and refuses to acknowledge this is "ethnic cleansing", and reference to "uncontrollable elements", time will see them through. When your own soldiers are killing Serbs and burning their homes, it's difficult to do much else.

So when we reached Subotici and found the abandoned Serb farm crackling with golden flames, our eyes fell on two Croat cars parked guiltily opposite the gate. Their Croat owners had not expected us to find them, to come upon the scene of their "cleansing." Where are they, I asked Garda O'Rourke? "Don't worry, they're around, watching us," she said. She was right. We padded into the farmyard, the winter logs burning fiercely, the roof of the farmhouse smouldering, a pathetic, evil scattering of tables and papers and clothes spread across the floor inside.

Then, just after I'd taken a photograph of those two Croat cars, we saw three heads moving down the road, bobbing behind a dry stone wall. "Dobar dan," - "hallo" - we chorused with something less than goodwill. "What are you doing here?" Lieutenant Coley asked. The three men, all in their early 20s, looked guilty, not in a war criminals' way, which they should have done, but in the manner of schoolboys who have been caught stealing the farmer's apples. They still weren't quite sure how much, or how little, power that Garda O'Rourke and Lieutenant Coley possessed.

Lieutenant Coley repeated his question. "We saw the fire," the Croat with the pomegranate lied. "We followed you here because we wanted to find out what was happening." Lieutenant Coley looked at Garda O'Rourke. She looked at Lieutenant Coley and at the younger of the three men who was trying to restrain his laughter. "Where are your identification papers?" Lieutenant Coley asked. The man with the pomegranate said they had none. "Then what are your names?" The same man scowled at Garda Coley and Lieutenant O'Rourke. "We are Croatians - we are Croatian army," he said, and he and the younger man laughed. Only the youth with the rifle round his neck - the UN team was unarmed - did not smile.

"How could you have followed us in, when your cars were already here?" Lieutenant Coley asked again. The three men shrugged. Then one of them made a remark, softly in Croatian, but loud enough for the UN interpreter to hear: "We can burn the rest of the houses if we want." Lieutenant Coley and Garda O'Rourke could do nothing. It was a moment of despair for both of them. They had no powers to arrest these Croats, who were neither drunk nor stupid. They were clearly following orders. General Cermak's, perhaps?

The Croat interior ministry police, who are deeply implicated in the murders and burnings in Krajina, claim they will investigate acts of arson or looting. Doubtless, they will be able to trace the two cars of the anonymous three Croat "ethnic cleansers". The first, an Audi, carried the registration number ZD 570 H, from the coastal town of Zadar, while the other bore the number plate KR 770 H, registered in Karlovac, 30 miles from Zagreb. Equally doubtless, however, the Croat police will not lift a finger to find out who owns the cars, since they must know all too well.