Croatia's refugees struggle with uncertain future


SID, Yugoslavia -- As her baby starts screaming, Zorka Novakovic looks up sharply, despair and exhaustion on her face.

"I'm sick and tired of this. I don't care what happens -- we've got to go home," she says as she hurries off to feed 4-week-old Jovana in the tiny room and single bed they share with her two other young children.

The Novakovics are among 86,000 registered Serbian refugees who have fled the fighting in Croatia as the Serbian army moves through the breakaway republic. Tens of thousands more have not registered but have gone to stay with friends and relatives.

The initial welcome over, tensions are surfacing. The refugee women don't know if or when they will see their homes again, or if their husbands, brothers and fathers -- most of whom stayed behind to defend those homes -- will be killed in the intensifying battles.

There are a similar number of Croatian refugees, and Hungary's prime minister said that 10,000 ethnic Hungarians have fled to his country from Yugoslavia.

Like most Serb refugees, the Novakovics have been taken in by a family. Most Croats are put up in abandoned tourist facilities.

The Novakovics' story is typical. Through hard work, they built a comfortable home in the village of Brsadin in eastern Croatia: She worked in a nearby rubber plant, he sold ceramic tiles. His brother's family lived next door and tended a large family vineyard. The village of 4,000 is predominantly Serbian. The fighting began there in early June.

In most stories told by the refugees, fact is woven with fantasy. Mrs. Novakovic's is no exception. As she tells it, the Croatian authorities ordered the 40 Croat families in the village to leave -- "the Croats had to go and they had to take weapons. The Croatians slit the throats of those who didn't accept weapons."

The Croats, she said, then surrounded the village and began pounding it with mortar fire. Zorka, then seven months pregnant, said she and the extended Novakovic family spent a terrified two weeks in the basement of their house.

Even though the army handed out weapons to the men to defend their homes -- "we could really fight back then, not like when we just had hunting rifles," said one man -- the women and children soon left in a convoy of army personnel carriers and headed for Sid, a town over the Serbian border where the local Red Cross had set up a refugee settlement center. Sid, with a population of 36,000, already has taken in 2,505 refugees.

"We didn't have to pressure anybody; offers to put up refugees have poured in, though it is getting a bit tight now, and there are money worries with winter approaching and the need for heating," said Slavica Nedic, who runs the Red Cross operation in Sid. Her cramped office is dominated by a hand-scrawled sign calling on all able-bodied men between 18 and 60 who have already done their mandatory military service to report to serve in the local territorial defense force.

But what started as a short-term solution, easily carried out in the balmy summer months, is now putting a psychological and financial strain on the refugees and their hosts, and threatens to become a long-term hardship.

All efforts to bring an end to the two-month war in Croatia are failing. If anything, the fighting intensified last week.

"We have no future here. Perhaps we have no future at all," said Mrs. Novakovic's sister-in-law, who has been sheltered in the same three-room house with her two children.

"I worked for 23 years, and what do I have -- nothing. I won't even get anything from the pension fund I contributed to for 23 years," she said.

As the children run around in the house, she sees that they are wearing down the nerves and the health of the elderly widow who took them in.

It is a discouraging prospect for the tens of thousands of refugees, adding to the uncertainty of their situation. The Red Cross gives them about $2 a month. They are not allowed to withdraw money from banks.

Most say that before the trouble began, Serbs and Croats lived happily side by side. But now, they repeat and embroider on the stories of horror committed by the other side. It can never be the same again, they say.

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