Serbs abandon life of fear in Croatia

Tudjman's generous law on minorities is not halting an exodus of frightened people, writes Emma Daly in Zagreb
"My family lived in Croatia for 800 years," saidAna. But, she is planning to leave for good this summer, with her husband Ilija and their two sons.

The family will swap the comfortable two-storey house they built in a village outside Zagreb for a Croat-owned house in northern Serbia. Ana has decided, regretfully, that life as a Serb in Croatia has become too painful, adding: "Probably the situation for [the Croats in Serbia] is not very rosy either."

Since Croatia's recognition in January 1992, when the Serbs accounted for about 12 per cent of the 4 million-plus population, some 300,000 have left government-held territory, 85,000 moving to the "Serbian Republic of Krajina".

Of those who stayed, some have assimilated, changing their names and converting to Catholicism; others stick it out, loath to leave their homes and hoping for better times.

"There is no way to live well in Krajina. I would have no job there. Everything we own is here. Our children were born here. We don't want to give it up," said Gordana, a Croatian Serb in Zagreb who lost her job as a cook, she claims, because of discrimination.

She and her husband, Dragan, describe a life circumscribed by intimidation, isolated from their Croatian neighbours, cut off from relatives in the Krajina, their children bullied at school and rejected for places at university.

"A Serbian colleague of mine changed his name to Ivan [a Croatian name] but it didn't help him much because everyone knew he was a Serb and in a way they despised him a bit for giving up a part of himself," Dragan said. "And he lost his job in the end, anyway."

Ana and Ilija decided to leave because their two sons were bullied at school - the youngest by his teacher - and friendless. "I was born here and I'm going to the unknown but I'm happy to do it because of the children," Ana said.

Such stories are common, according to human rights officials and Croatian Serb politicians. "I would call the policy of our government towards Serbs `soft ethnic cleansing'," said Ivan Cicik, of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights.

The atmosphere is better now, three years after the Serb-Croat war. It is almost certainly safer to be a Serb in Croatia than to be a Croat in Krajina.

Mr Cicik says that the situation is improving, as does Taduesz Mazowiecki, the United Nations human rights rapporteur.

Under Croatian law, Serbs are guaranteed human rights and the advancement of their culture. Serious crimes, such as kidnappings, murders, the destruction of Serbian houses and illegal evictions are no longer a problem. Yet, Serbs do not enjoy the rights to which they are entitled by law.

Many face obstacles getting citizenship and keeping their jobs and homes. They also encounter hostility, much of it fostered by the government.

When asked about illegal evictions last year, President Franjo Tudjman replied that "Evictions have to do with individuals who are guilty or in connection with those guilty for the fact that in Croatia today we have 250,000 people driven out of their homes ...and also thousands of people killed." As Mr Cicik said: "The Serbs are accused of collective guilt."

Veselin Pejnovic, an MP of the Serbian National Party, considered a Tudjman puppet group by other Serbian politicians, and Milorad Pupovac, founder of the Independent Serbian Party, say the minorities law does not yet apply in Croatia.

The government says the minorities law will be implemented fully once the Krajina is reintegrated. But the Krajina Serbs have refused to consider a peace plan for Croatia until Mr Tudjman revokes his decision to expel the UN. The two enemies have made some progress, agreeing to open a road linking two Serb-held areas.