Refugees scrambling for homes of 'cleansed'


HRTKOVCI, Yugoslavia -- She was overwrought and suffering in the humid weather, damp patches appearing under the sleeves of her flowered house dress. "My daughter is expecting a baby, and we are unable to put her up," she said bitterly. "What are we to do?"

That night, Obrenka Kozomara, 51, took matters into her own hands in the name of justice. She broke into one of the big empty Croatian houses in the village, installing her daughter-in-law and son there. The photos of another family's children were quickly taken down from the walls. Other mementos of another family's life will gradually be erased.

While most attention is fixed on the tidal wave of refugees threatening to flood into Western Europe, another disturbing refugee drama is unfolding inside the former Yugoslavia. In the general breakdown of law, order and morality, desperate refugees are simply seizing the houses and property of people who have been "ethnically cleansed" -- removed.

Most, like Mrs. Kozomara, believe they are doing the right thing.

She and her husband, both Serbs, had worked hard building up their business: a restaurant on the ground floor under their spacious apartment in the Croatian port of Sibenik. They had recently bought a boat.

Then came the war, in which tens of thousands of people were killed as Yugoslavia broke down into its constituent republics.

Hostility toward the Kozomaras grew.

"People I knew would come up to me in the street and say to me: 'You're a Serb, why don't you leave? If you don't, you'll get your throats cut'," she said. But it was only when explosives were tossed into the restaurant that they took the advice and joined the 2 million others forced to uproot themselves.

At first, they thought themselves lucky to meet a Croat fleeing Serb intimidation here in Hrtkovci, about 30 miles west of Belgrade. He told them that he had a large house and restaurant and that they should swap. They drew up the papers.

But when they arrived with officially stamped documents, the large house turned out to be tiny. Two refugee families already were living there with the owner's permission. And the restaurant was owned by the state.

"Look at this," she said as she picked up layers of sheets and bedclothes on the bed. "Terrible quality. And crystal! He told us there would be crystal -- just a few crummy glasses. Rotten floorboards, too. And let me show you the toilet. . . . I had six toilets in my house. . . . And the refugees, he didn't tell us about the refugees. Seven of them."

In a house across Lenin Street, there was even greater turmoil. The Croatian owner had signed exchange agreements with no fewer than three Serb families. All were now living there and fighting over who was the rightful owner.

These families had tried to behave as honorably as possible, under the circumstances. They had tried to exchange property. In Croatia, several agencies have been created to deal with such exchanges. The windows of the town council in Hrtkovci are plastered with hand-written signs offering house swaps.

But hundreds of thousands more refugees no longer have property to swap: people like Manya Gelic, a 36-year-old Serb father of two who rushed to Hrtkovci when he heard on Belgrade radio "that they are giving away houses here to refugees."

He admitted some qualms about taking over a house that did not belong to him, "but I am desperate." His house had been burned down by Croatian forces in eastern Croatia, he said -- the flames had been fed by pinewood panels he had been collecting to start building a home for his two daughters in the garden.

An intense slip of a man, he has clearly still not come to terms with what has happened.

"The authorities have to repay me somehow. I spent all my life working for that home," Mr. Gelic said. What authorities? He could not say.

He may or may not be allocated a house.

Another young Serb from Bosnia was not going to take the chance of being turned down. "I forced my way into my house and forced an agreement on the people living there," he said proudly.

Swarthy, bearded and with a gold cross around his neck and an earring in his ear, Miroslav Milicic, 27, admitted having fought with Serb territorials. He had seized the house in Hrtkovci for himself and his ailing, 62-year-old asthmatic mother.

She had been "ethnically cleansed" from Bosnia; he was determined that neither she nor he would live in a grim refugee camp or with host families.

"I was more than seven months without a home. It's awful. I didn't see a TV screen or an electric light bulb in all that time," he said. "I had forgotten what normal life was like."

The Serb invaders are trying to force a name change on the village, from Hrtkovci to Srboslavci -- Serb Celebration. But ethnic celebration is in short supply. The Serbs from outside have not been welcomed by Serbs who have lived for years in Hrtkovci.

"We always liked our [Croatian and Hungarian] neighbors. What right have these people to come in here and take over their property? No right whatsoever," said one Serb woman, who asked not to be named. Her husband motioned her to be quiet, telling her she had already said enough. But she did not stop.

She described how the "ethnic cleansing" of Hrtkovci began May 6 when a notorious Serb nationalist politician, Vojislav Seselj, made a speech in nearby Ruma. He named 15 Hrtkovci families who he said were Ustashas -- the name for Croatian terrorists.

Mr. Seselj's men, paramilitaries known as Chetniks, stormed into the houses. They said that they found guns and inflammatory anti-Serb literature. A Serb refugee claimed that among the literature in one house were books telling Croatian children how to cut the throats of Serb children. He alleged that these books were now at the local police station -- but nobody could produce them.

Mr. Seselj's men gradually began taking over empty houses and intimidating the remaining Croatians and Hungarians. Their methods ranged from threatening letters and phone calls to gunpoint terror.

"They would call my sister up through the night and tell her when she woke up in the morning she would find the throats of her sons slit," said an ethnic Hungarian woman married to a Serb. "My sister finally had to leave."

The village of 410 houses used to be 83 percent Croatian. Now a majority is Serb.

The outside Serbs have hijacked the local town council. A hand-written notice on the wall sets the tone: "Srbija Srbiji," it reads -- Serbia for the Serbs. But they are angry at the cold shoulder being given them.

"The Serbs here keep saying to us, 'Why are you here? You are Serbs from Bosnia. Go back to Bosnia.' But they haven't seen our houses burned down, what we had destroyed," said one desperate man who has taken over the house of a Croatian family.

"This isn't much here -- look, there are dirt floors, and there are two families living here. We get nothing. They say we don't qualify for subsidies. Here nobody accepts us as Serbs. We are like second-class citizens. So we have to organize ourselves."

"I hope that war comes here," Jovan Medjedovic, 33, added pensively. "I hope I would be the first to die in it -- but if people here experience war, then at least they would understand us, our desperation."

His black hope may not come true now. But in years or decades to come, new generations may set out to avenge the injustices done to their families in this corner of Serbia and to seize back their family property. It is an old and sad Balkans cycle -- the same cycle that lies behind the present civil war.

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