Dazed by losses, Slovenians still intent on freedom

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LJUBLJANA, Yugoslavia -- Slovenia has paid a bloody pric for the independence it celebrated so passionately last Wednesday with church bells ringing and champagne flowing.

The pain today includes tragedies for families such as that of 26-year-old Edvard Peterkos. Four evenings ago, the sandy-haired young man celebrated independence with his 2 million countrymen in this place about the size of Maryland. A day later, he became one of the first victims of the Yugoslav army's drive to crush the republic's independence.

Called up with most of Slovenia's 70,000-strong territorial defense force, Mr. Peterkos had helped position buses, trucks and other heavy vehicles in the path of tanks heading toward the international airport here. On roads throughout the republic, similar scenes were taking place.

In Trzin, about eight miles from the airport, three tanks were stopped by the barricades.

In the early afternoon, two helicopters suddenly appeared out of TTC the clear sunny skies, ferrying troops in to free the tanks. A fierce battle broke out. One of the helicopters was shot down by a missile from a shoulder-held launcher. Several buses were blown up. Mr.Peterkos was killed by machine-gun fire. His friend, Danilo, broke down crying as he told the story.

The scenes of horror grew worse. By Friday morning, Yugoslav )) air force ORAO (Eagle) MiGs were being used. At Brnik airport outside Ljubljana, Slovenians stood in open-mouthed disbelief as four MiGs crisscrossed the airport, letting off machine-gun and cannon fire as they swooped down. Four commercial aircraft were damaged. Nine cars in the parking lot were reduced to twisted lumps of metal. Two Austrian photographers died.

The jets moved to free columns of tanks mired near the Austrian border. They screamed through the sky north of Maribor toward the crossing at Gornja Radgona, where civilians and territorial defense units had stopped a column of 17 tanks.

A group of journalists heading to Gornja Radgona was slowed down to a crawl and was guided along side roads and dirt tracks by helpful Slovenian militiamen clutching their Yugoslav-made Red Flag machine guns. Only they knew where to steer friendly cars on side roads, avoiding the barricades set up to block the army's advance.

Had we made our journey an hour later, we would have been at Gornja Radgona -- and could have been dead. The jets strafed a line of civilian cars waiting to cross the border nearby. Several people in the cars, many of them Turkish and Bulgarian guest workers on their way to Germany, are said to have died.

But despite the massive show of strength, Western diplomats and Slovenians were surprised at the poor planning of the Yugoslav forces -- and the success of the Slovenian forces.

"I was stunned that the federal army was so poorly organized," said Danilo Slivnik, a prominent Slovenian editor. "They just came in tankswithout food and water. When the tanks were surrounded, the soldiers became thirsty and hungry. In Maribor in particular, there were some almost insane actions by the local commander, who used rocket fire against one of the border posts, and the soldiers also were shooting indiscriminately in several cities in the area -- at houses, anything."

By Friday evening, the Yugoslav government announced that it was stopping its assaults since its objectives had been achieved. It claimed to have taken control of 17 border crossings with Austria, Italy and Hungary and to have blocked the remaining 11. But the horror was not over. Even as the cease-fire was being announced, sporadic firing continued.

Angered by the firing on non-military targets, Slovenian defense forces destroyed a column of 17 personnel carriers south of here Friday night. Yesterday morning, the situation remained tense in most of Slovenia, and eyewitnesses reported tanks mired north of Maribor.

All the main roads remained blocked by heavy vehicles of every description -- including garbage trucks and giant earth diggers. The vehicles clearly had been placed according to a prearranged and well-coordinated plan. Slovenia's territorial defense used radio stations for appeals to the population to set up barricades in various areas.

Ordinary people, while stunned by the violence, professed their determination to assert their independence. Between the barricades in the pretty, sun-drenched villages along the near-deserted roads, people were trying to go about their lives.

The scene had a surreal quality, evoking memories of films of the French countryside during the German occupation of World War II. Peasants tended their vines. A woman did her washing outside in a bucket of water.

But near scenes of fighting, the surface of life became less

normal. Children swarmed over a burned-out tank on a road outside Ljubljana, picking off parts for souvenirs. Within sight of the bombed airport, men, women and children stood quietly in doorways, some with binoculars fixed on the devastation in the distance. Groups of young boys sat on bicycles gaping enviously at territorial defense soldiers in dull blue uniforms directing traffic and barricade operations.

Some were barely out of boyhood. "I'm 18 years old -- I just finished school yesterday," said one fresh-faced young Slovenian soldier.

Talking with Slovenians, one thing was in little dispute: They want independence, but they want an end to the bloodshed.

"Of course we want independence; we all do. I want to be free -- the Yugoslav army wants to scare us, and I hope this will stop. But I think in the end we have to be free," said Tanya, a 17-year-old schoolgirl hitchhiking to her home in Menges because no buses were operating.

"Everybody here wants independence -- without Serbia," saione of a group of men and boys farther down the road.

Said another, older man: "Everyone should be given a rifle, and we should shoot them out of here." His comments were typical.

Others were buoyant despite the bloodshed.

"It's a victory. In a matter of three days, Slovenia has achieved world recognition, and there is no going back for us anymore. We don't even want to talk about a union of sovereign states, let alone a plan for a confederation. It is terrible that more than 100 people may have died, but in history it may be a small price to pay," said one academic who asked not to be identified.

Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel probably most succinctly expressed the sentiments of his countrymen yesterday: "There is no going back for Slovenia."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
48°