Serbs vow to stand firm in ghost city

Who would ever want to retake the forbidden city of Vukovar? Its 18th- century palace lies in ruins, its museums and Austro-Hungarian villas roofless, its supermarkets overgrown with weeds. Trees have begun to sprout from the skeletons of ancient cottages, street after street of them decaying into the evening river mists, brambles and wild flowers creeping across the fading yellow no-parking lines along the roads. The single-track railway has corroded into the undergrowth.

Only the Danube mosquitoes are greedy for what is left of the city's lifeblood, slapping into your face on the old coach-road through town where VojislavSeselj, "ethnic cleanser" extraordinaire, has a new set of party offices.

But every Serb in Vukovar has made plans for the Croatian attack. Bovice Gajic will send his sister and parents back to Serbia. His girlfriend, Olivera, will go to Belgrade. Old Nikola Nonkovic will fight, just as his father did in the Partisans. Slobodan Popovic will be at the front, his two young sons among the second line troops to face five Croatian armoured brigades. Or so they say. That is what the Serbs of Krajina and western Bosnia announced before the Croatian steamroller turned up at their gates.

And President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia has promised to recapture the delicate old Danubian city that fell to the Serbs in the winter of 1991.

It's not difficult to see why few journalists have been allowed to visit Vukovar since that date. Croatia claims the destruction of the archeological glories of the city is a Serb war crime - albeit that the Croats themselves turned the palaces into bunkers during the six-month siege. Serbs insist that Vukovar will never surrender. "Please don't take pictures of the soldiers," Dragon - all of 21 with a Kalashnikov over his shoulder - pleads repeatedly. "Don't film the Danube here because it's a military area. You can't take pictures of the museum because it's a police station. Why don't you get people in your pictures? There are people still living here."

Not many. The local authorities say 20,000 Serbs and 1,000 Croats still live in a city that was once home to almost 50,000 - Croatia says 100,000 - but they are hard to find. Besides, there is always the possibility that the camera's lens might catch some ghostly reflection amid the ruins - of the hundreds of Croat patients taken from the hospital after the 1991 siege had ended, for example, and lined up at an execution pit before the International Red Cross could rescue them. Then there is the unhappy fact that Arkan - Seselj's blood-brother in horror - runs a camp for his "Tiger" militias up the road at Erdut in the northernmost part of this sliver of Croatian territory.

"Arkan's men are under the control of our 11th Brigade," Slobodan Popovic says with confidence. "The hospital story is anti-Serb propaganda. There were some Ustashi [Croatian extremist] troops who pretended to be patients and put bandages on their bodies to hide. We took them prisoner.''

"The beautiful buildings of my city were destroyed because the Croats used them as fortresses," he continued. "Maybe you don't get the feeling that Vukovar is ready to defend itself. And if we are talking tactics, we couldn't stop the Croats from shelling the city. But our soldiers are ready for the ground attack. Everyone has his duties except for the children and the very old."

Only in a place of such dank and overgrown hopes could a man be blessed with the title of "Chef du Cabinet to the Mayor of Vukovar in the Serb Krajina Republic", but that is the role in which Slobodan Popovic rejoices; and, to be fair, he knows how to fight his corner. He had just been explaining the Serbs' determination to fight to five members of the Russian parliament, dismissing any parallels with the Serb defeats across the border in Bosnia.

"Our militia and army here have orders to arrest any of the Knin [Serb] authorities who set foot here after what happened to the rest of the Krajina. We know Tudjman is preparing to attack us but this will not be another Knin," Mr Popovic said.

That, according to the Belgrade diplomatic circuit, is what Richard Holbrooke, the US negotiator, believes, fearing that President Tudjman will try to cap his victories by storming into eastern Slavonia.

This and this alone, it is said, would bring the old Yugoslav National Army back into the war; and Mr Popovic doesn't disagree. "Serbia - Yugoslavia - is trying to make peace in this region but everyone has a limit beyond which they cannot go. For Serbia, this area is the limit. The Croats believe that in their battle for Vukovar, they won their state. But I tell you this: if they attack us, it could mean the end of their state. If they won their state in Vukovar, they will lose it here if they attack. I told the English ambassador [Gavin] Hewitt [from Zagreb] that this situation was like Chamberlain giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler. Today, Britain, France and America are handing Serb territory to the [Croat] Ustashi who fought with Hitler in the war. Mr Hewitt said that it was a `mistake' for Chamberlain to give Czechoslovakia to Hitler. I told him I agreed. But you know, I only want to live here in my town. It is a city with history, with a soul. Can you imagine what this means to me?"

Mr Popovic's little Sudetenland has little soul left just now. In the market place, old women and boys sell matches, chocolate and shampoo on concrete benches.

"We are all nervous," Bovice Gajic admits, a postal sorter turned part- time soldier. "The Croats will attack in one or two months. We are all depressed here because we know what happened in Krajina and Bosnia." Nikola Nonkovic, a retired car factory worker, lives on Red Cross parcels and confidence in Serbia. "We can't survive an assault without Serbia's help - but Serbia has been under sanctions with the world against her. I will never leave here. I will fight till I die."

You can't help noticing, however, when you leave this damp and ruined Ruritania, that across the border in Serbia there is not a hint of armour, not a field gun, not a single truck-load of Yugoslav troops ready to defend the east Slavonian "Krajina Republic" and the mayor's Chef du Cabinet against Mr Tudjman's brigades. Has Mr Holbrooke misjudged the situation, one wonders? Or has Mr Tudjman?

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