Krajina Serbs put trust in the UN for protection

Robert Fisk in Knin finds refugees wary of betrayal and vengeance
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The Serb schoolteacher had an uncomfortable question to ask, double- edged because by raising the subject he was admitting something he could not acknowledge. "Can we trust the United Nations to protect us?" he asked me sheepishly. A tall, middle-aged philosophy teacher, he was a refugee from Benkovac, sheltering now among 779 other Serbs in the UN camp at Knin. Was it wicked of me to ask why he doubted the measure of the UN's protection?

There was much shuffling among the young Serb men and women standing in the darkening, wired-off barracks square beneath the UN's arc lights, a Canadian UN trooper standing guard at the barbed-wire entrance. No one could - or would - answer my question. For they all knew what it meant. They were worried, of course, that the UN force in Knin would betray them in the same shameless way the Dutch battalion betrayed the Bosnian Muslim civilians of Srebrenica. They were frightened that the Croatians would be allowed to take them away to execution pits, as the Serbs did to the Muslim men of Srebrenica after the UN "safe haven" fell.

But of course they could not admit that the Srebrenica atrocities ever took place. They could not accept this publicly any more than they could the other Bosnian Serb massacres and rape.

For the Serb refugees in Knin are still mouthing ignorance of their cousins' crimes 150 miles to the east. So I told the schoolteacher that I suspected he was thinking about what happened at Srebrenica. He shrugged. But an older man in a blue jacket behind him did not shrug. He nodded vigorously, then looked around to see how many of his fellow refugees were watching his gesture.

The UN guards 780 Serbs at Knin while another 99, almost all of them in their eighties, lie on mattresses in a secondary-school gymnasium on the other side of town, protected - if that is the right word - by Croatian policemen. Every day brings another fearful family to the UN gates.

At 8.30pm, a UN official arrived to tell the crowd what was happening around them. Able only to hear Croatian radio's biased reports, they wanted to have news of the outside world.

The official spoke in English and a Serb camp "leader" - how quickly camp "leaders" spring up to represent dead causes - translated his remarks through a loud-hailer. They wanted to be told the truth. So they stood, a few of the women weeping, as the UN told them that their villages were being burned and pillaged by the Croats, that Nato was bombarding the Bosnian Serbs next door in the most devastating air strikes in post-war European history, that the Croat authorities in Knin would let none of them leave for Serbia until 62 "war criminals" were handed over for interrogation or trial.

There was silence, as well there might be. Then a woman stepped forward with a letter written - so she mendaciously claimed - by the smallest children in the UN camp. They were tired and sick, the letter alleged. There would be infectious diseases if so many people remained huddled together in the UN camp. Surely these children must be sent to Serbia now so that they could attend school, along with their mothers? A girl sidled up to me. "You understand what is happening?" she asked. "These women were married to Serb officers who are already in Belgrade because they ran away at the start. Now the women are ready to betray any soldiers who may be among us in order to go to Belgrade - they will let the men be given to the Croats if that is the price of going to Serbia."

The UN official replied meekly that he was merely present to give information. "The women are not the only problem," the girl said. "Now we have some people here - maybe 5 per cent - who are thinking that they may like to see if the Croats will honour their promise to let them stay. They go into the town each day and talk to the Croat officials and are nice to them. Then they come back here in the evening and listen to what we say. They are telling the Croats everything - maybe identifying the men here - and they are now stool-pigeons here for the Croats."

The schoolteacher wanted to explain his people's plight. "The Croats wanted our land in the Krajina and drove us off it in an act of ethnic cleansing." Absolutely true. "The Serbs have never harmed Croats or their homes in the Krajina." Totally untrue. "The Serbs were naive in World War Two and are naive today because we trusted others rather than ourselves." Myth. "The Serbs could have arranged things after the world war in a different way and could have prevented what happened to us now." True, though Titoist reform was not what he was thinking about. "If the Croats had not had support from Germany and the United States, the Serbs would have been the winners of this war."

When the schoolteacher had finished, the man in the blue jacket who had silently acknowledged the truth of Srebrenica wanted to say something. "We are Balkan people and we are uncivilised," he said. It was demeaning and pitiful and shameful: how many times have reporters heard this lament from men and women who have run out of lies and dreams?

For the moral of so base an argument is simple: we do bad things because we are bad people. No wonder the Croats are waiting hungrily outside the wire for the Serbs inside to betray each other.