Krajina's survivors stagger back `home'

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Many of them had to be carried on to the buses, clinging on to their crutches, their shawls, their pathetic plastic bags. We quickly lost count of the old women among the 1,340 Serbs from Krajina, weeping - most of them - or coughing in the near-freezing breeze that swept down from the plains of Vojvodina. One mumbled about murder, of a neighbour bayoneted on a tractor, of six others gunned down by a Croatian soldier wearing a black headband on a mountain road. One old woman, bent almost double, was so confused she could not even remember the name of the home village she had left less that two weeks ago.

So the last of the Serbs of Krajina - almost the final survivors - came ``home'' to Serbia this weekend, the Croatian ``cleansing'' of the old frontier land accompanied, as usual, by the humanitarian assistance of the United Nations. Back in Knin the Croats had demanded that the UN hand over 34 of the refugees under their protection as ``war criminals'' and then added another six names - including that of a woman -for good measure at the 11th hour. The UN let them be taken away before the Croats escorted the convoy out of the land in which Serbs have lived for generations.

Some of the Serbs were met by relatives from Novi Sad or Belgrade but many of the old had nowhere to go but the bleak ``reception centres'' on the road to Hungary. ``They will not live long now they have left their homes,'' a Serb nurse said with academic detachment.

``In circumstances like these and without family, old people are finished. But what are we going to do with the new refugees that will come from Serbian Bosnia? How are we going to house the thousands who have now fled Jajce, Sanski Most and Kljuc? What if Banja Luka falls?''

It was not a question that bore much thinking about on the cold road outside Lipovac, where the ``milicija'' arc-lights lit up the swaying, wintry trees beside Tito's old ``Highway of Brotherhood and Unity''. If it took five hours to process just over a thousand refugees from Krajina, how long would it take to absorb a quarter of a million or more from Bosnia, far greater even than the original Krajina exodus last month? Would a world grown weary of Serb atrocities find any compassion for the next forced emigration of hungry Serb civilians?

The stories of the men and women who had finally left their homes in the mountain villages were no less fearful for being familiar. There was 42-year-old Marija Grujo from Radje, for instance, who did not want to leave her ancestral home even after the Croats had conquered the preposterous army of the ``Serb Krajina Republic''.

``We decided to leave on the Sunday after the war,'' she said. ``I was with my neighbour and her husband on our tractor, and another neighbour, Nojan Milos, was the driver. We took bedding and food for the babies and set off with other families. Then on a winding hill road, our convoy of tractors was stopped by four men, two in Croatian uniform and two armed civilians.''

Marija Grujo was too tired to show emotion as she described what happened next: ``One of the soldiers wore a black headband. He looked at Bojan Milos and attacked him with a bayonet. He pushed it into Bojan's stomach and tore at him. Bojan just fell back, groaning. The soldier stole his watch and then started shooting at the other people on the tractors. He killed six of them. Then they made us get off the tractors and walk. We were handed over to other men who took us to Zadar [on the Croatian coast]."

At least 250 other Serbs had been held in Zadar, most of them having believed the Croatian President Franjo Tudjman's original claim that they could stay in their homes - until Croat troops burned the surrounding villages and ordered them out. Jovo and Zorka Obradovic stayed for two weeks in Dabasic after the arrival of Croat troops. Only when they burned his own home, Jovo Obradovic said, did he tell a Croatian officer that ``Tudjman is a liar.'' He was arrested along with his wife, taken to Zadar and put on the weekend convoy to Serbia.

According to UN officials, there were heartrending scenes when the 40 accused of ``war crimes'' by the Croats were taken from the UN compound in Knin - the deal under which the remaining refugees could leave for Serbia.

UN officers followed the Croat buses that took the prisoners to Zadar; their families were allowed to go to Zadar but not to live with them there. Smilja Erakovic, the 35-year-old wife of the local Serb military commander at Svilaj - already a prisoner - was handed over to the Croats. Her two young children were, apparently with her permission, put on the UN buses to Serbia, alone.

Yasushi Akashi, the UN special envoy, had solemnly agreed that the Croats must level serious criminal charges before the UN handed over their Serbs to Croat ``justice'', but the Croats broke the agreement, at one point branding a man of 82 and two children as ``war criminals'' along with a woman they had wrongly identified as Mr Erakovic's wife.