Refugees forced to eastern Slavonia

Balkan turmoil: Serbs from fallen region press-ganged into warlord's militia as triumphant Croatia reopens rail link with coast


Serb refugees from Croatia are being rounded up by the Serbian authorities and forcibly dispatched to a military camp in eastern Slavonia run by Serbia's principal gangster warlord, according to Krajina Serbs sheltering in villages near Belgrade. The refugees fear that they are to be Serbia's cannon-fodder in a battle with Croatia for the fertile, oil-rich lands of eastern Slavonia.

Between 3,000 and 4,000 men who have no desire to return to the battlefield have been beaten and otherwise mistreated by troops loyal to Zeljko "Arkan" Raznjatovic, according to one man who was released on the grounds of ill- health from the camp at Erdut in eastern Slavonia, the last Serb-held pocket in Croatia.

"I am really too frightened to talk about it" said Mile, his hands trembling as he fidgeted with a packet of cigarettes. "That was one of the worst experiences of my life."

He and a friend were arrested by the Serbian police in a village north of Belgrade, placed in an army lorry and driven to Erdut. The base is run by soldiers loyal to Arkan, infamous for the brutality with which he "ethnically cleansed" and killed in Bosnia and Croatia.

Fear is palpable among the Krajina Serb refugees who feel betrayed by President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and by their own leaders. Their worst nightmare is a return to war, and they talk now of returning to Krajina under Croatian rule. "We've lost everything else," said one. "The worst that can happen now is that we can lose our lives."

Conventional wisdom has it that President Milosevic cannot afford to let Zagreb overrun eastern Slavonia as it did the rest of the ill-fated "Republic of Serb Krajina". But neither can he order the Yugoslav army across the Croatian border at a time when he is close to winning a suspension of international sanctions. The defence of eastern Slavonia, many refugees believe, is down to Arkan's paramilitaries, with semi-official help and anyone else the police can catch.

"We didn't know where we were going," Mile said helplessly. Upon arrival at Erdut, they were told to run to the camp, with the slowest kicked along by Arkan's officers. "They just told us that we were not allowed to ask questions, and we were not allowed to say 'No' or 'I can't'." Stubble sprouts from Mile's scalp; the men's heads were shaved when they arrived before the start of "military training".

Mile, who described his ordeal reluctantly, would not elaborate further. He and others in the area suspect the Serbian Red Cross of colluding with the round-up, describing police raids in the dead of night on houses sheltering Krajina refugees. "The guy who lives here registered with the Red Cross, and gave them a wrong address," said one local man. "The next day the police came looking for him at that address but the family told them the man had already gone to Banja Luka [in Serb-held Bosnia]."

Mile was finally released after a doctor in Erdut certified he was unfit for military service. Jovan's two brothers were not so lucky; they were arrested in another village and taken away. One managed to telephone Jovan several days later from Erdut, and told a similar story of brutality, ill-treatment and terror. Jovan too was reluctant to talk about his brother's plight, for fear of reprisals.

The refugees asked for their real names and locations not to be identified. "We live in greater fear here than we did in Krajina," said Sonja, whose husband, Dusko, has spent only two of the past 14 nights in the house where she is staying. When the refugee network alerts men to police raids in the area by telephone, Dusko - who says he knows 12 men who have been taken away - leaves home to sleep rough and evade capture.

A middle-aged man sharing a cramped room with his wife and four children in a town nearby is afraid, like all his comrades, to go outside.

"We're in hiding here," he said. "I know seven men from my village [in Krajina] who have been taken away."

Interviews with Serb refugees dispersed in private homes in the area reveal numerous tales of arrests and of midnight raids by police accompanied by Arkan's soldiers, distinctive in their black uniforms. "These men don't want to fight, because they don't know what they are supposed to be fighting for," Dusko said.