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Serb tells of fight to survive in wilderness

Oraovac, Croatia (Reuters) -

Mirko Djakovic is back in his house after spending nearly two years hiding in the woods above his village after its recapture by Croatian troops. He is one of a handful of Serbs who have returned to Oraovac, which lies in a former rebel Serb enclave of Croatia.

Mr Djakovic, 54, spent 633 days in the hills, avoiding the Croatian army and police who retook the village in August 1995. Everyone in the village fled, and he took with him some food, a tool kit, blankets and a machine gun.

After a short time, his wife, a Muslim, took their grandchild and surrendered to the police. They were sent to her home town of Bihac, in north-east Bosnia. "I was all alone with my sheep dog" said Mr Djakovic.

After months of struggling against the elements, he heard in January that Croatia had agreed to amnesty all Serbs who took part in the 1991- 95 rebellion. "In February this year, when winter started receding, I began mental preparations to go down, but bad weather held me in the woods until April. Then I shaved, put on my best suit and walked straight into the police station."

He was sunburnt and had lost 67 lbs. "When I came in and said `I've come to surrender, I've been in the woods all this time' the policemen wouldn't believe me," Mr Djakovic said. But they found his name on the missing persons' list and the next day he was taken to a court in Zadar where a judge said he was amnestied in line with the law.

"After the first month I was almost dead of thirst and hunger," he recalled." Then I said to myself that I was going to survive."

At night, he started going down to the village, which was patrolled by Croatian troops, to get water, nails, wire and anything else he could find, mostly books. "The books saved me. I read over 1,000 while I was up there - fiction, encyclopaedias, popular science, travelogues, so I as good as travelled around the world."

The next thing he did was make a bow and arrow to hunt. He then built a hut in the woods, but his greatest achievement, he says with a grin, was a makeshift distillery. "You know when I think back on it, I had some kind of peace and comfort up there. I would lie on my bed, read a book, sip at my brandy and smoke dried tobacco and herb leaves."