KNIN, Croatia -- As capital cities go, Knin isn't much to look at -- a dreary shuffling town of barking dogs and drying laundry. The architecture is drab chockablock. The surrounding mountains seem more suited to rattlesnakes than trees. And no man feels at home without a gun, preferably an automatic weapon, although just about any firearm will do after a few shots of the local plum brandy.
But for anyone seeking to understand the hard-bitten ethnic nationalism at the core of Balkan strife, the place to go is Knin, capital of the self-declared Republic of the Serbian Krajina.
To know Knin is to know the Serbian zeal that helped start the war in the former Yugoslavia, and often sustains it. And as diplomats work toward a deal to keep the war from spreading, Knin's special brand of ethnic obstinacy could block their way.
Yesterday, Serbian officials in Knin rejected an international plan to put United Nations troops along the Bosnia-Herzegovina border in Serb-held Croatian territory such as the Krajina region. The plan was part of an international deal to keep Croatian President Franjo Tudjman from expelling U.N. troops from his country March 31, a possibility that had heightened fears of a wider Balkan war.
Knin's continued rejection would keep those fears alive by endangering the deal with Mr. Tudjman, and any recent visitor to Knin will tell you that Serbian stubbornness is not in short supply.
The Krajina Serbs carved out their "nation" by force from nearly a third of Croatia's territory, just as Croatia was declaring its own independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.
So far no other country, not even Serbia, has recognized this nation of rebel Croatian Serbs.
On most sides they are hemmed in by Croatian majorities, and their backs are up against Bosnia-Herzegovina. Just to the south and west of the hills around Knin are some of the most ardent Croatian nationalists and neo-fascists.
The volatile mix of these passions might have simply burned itself out in the hills had it not been for Knin's strategic location. It is a vital rail and communications link on the lifeline between the Croatian capital of Zagreb and the tourism regions on the Dalmatian coast.
"Knin is nothing, an ugly small town," says Zarko Puhovski, a political activist and professor of political philosophy at Zagreb University. "But without Knin, Croatia loses Dalmatia, period. And without 'liberation' of this area, there is no more tourism. Croatia does not have any chance of living normally without Knin."
This is why Mr. Tudjman is so intent on winning back Knin, even if it means reigniting fighting in a region that has remained calm for a year.
It was the vicious fighting emanating outward from Knin in early 1991, with its ethnic purification and retribution, that set the tone for all the horrors that followed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But the current war is only the latest outbreak of such hatred. Serbian children here are raised on tales of the last round of unpleasantness during World War II, when the fascist Ustasha ++ movement of Croatian nationalists teamed up with invading Nazis to massacre tens of thousands of Serbs. In those days Knin was one of the few strongholds of the Chetniks, Serbian nationalists with their own bloody heritage.
Memories of World War II
"My mother told me about the Ustasha, about the concentration camps and what happened," says Radomir Knesevic, a 33-year-old engineer who is now an assistant to Milan Martic, president of the Krajina Serbs.
"In one day in our village they killed 336 people. You have caves around here where the bodies were put which are filled with concrete. The communists would always say, 'Shhh, you are not to remember that they did this to you.' But we remembered."
Overlaying these memories is a fierce militant nature also fostered from cradle to grave.
"The preoccupation of the Serbs in the Krajina is military," says Alun R. Roberts, spokesman for the U.N. troops operating out of Knin. "Every male has a weapon. They'll farm wearing it, they'll drink wearing it.
That's the way life is."
Nonetheless, Mr. Knesevic says, he withstood all the pressures to hate, at least for a while. "I was a citizen of the world. A lot of my friends were Croats. My girlfriend was a Croat. And nobody ever asked, 'What are you?'. . . Our fight was produced by our fear."
The fears multiplied quickly in 1990 when Croatia began moving toward secession from Yugoslavia, especially when Croatian fascists in nearby cities such as Split began cracking down on the Serbian minority.
Any hopes that these fears might be calmed were lost in a wash of propaganda from both Serbia and Croatia, with both sides laying claim to the Krajina region. So by the time a firefight between Serbian irregulars and Croatian militia took place in August 1990, full-blown war was virtually inevitable.
A few months later it began. Serbian units backed by the Yugoslavian army brutally smashed their way north, burning and destroying entire Croatian villages even after the resisters retreated.
Now, the Serbs around here say too much has happened for them to ever live peacefully with their Croatian former neighbors.
"Never again," says Cupac Ciro, 55, a grizzled man with a sweeping handlebar mustache. "We must have our own borders.
"I am a soldier," he adds proudly. "And I have two sons, and they are both on the front line."
Mr. Ciro is sitting with a few friends at a long table in the Serbian Orthodox seminary of the Krka Monastery, just above a peaceful mountain lake a few miles west of Knin. Landmarks such as this, with its 14th-century church, have become ethnic rallying points for territorial claims.
A man sitting near Mr. Ciro hands a visitor a colorful brochure describing the monastery's history. Published last year in Belgrade, Serbia, one passage stresses that a local 13th-century Serbian prince was "the ruler of Dalmatia and Croatia."
The church's existence, says the man with the brochure, proves that this is Serbian land.
Across the table, anthropologist Bojan Jovanovic ups the ante by a few more centuries. He says that graves discovered in the nearby hills have been dated back to the 8th century.
Sure, he says, that may have been 200 years before the Orthodox Church split from the Roman Catholic Church (to which most Croats belong).
"But by the way the bodies are buried," he says, "it is possible to say these people were Serbs."
Such is the logic of Balkan revisionism.
And you won't hear a single one of these men mention that medieval Croatian kings once ruled the region from within the walls of the Knin Castle, overlooking the city from a commanding hill.
Instead, they spend the next hour frowning and clucking as they bandy about the names of Serbian bogey men -- the Vatican, Germany, the U.S. news media -- while knocking back shots of plum brandy.
Downstairs, seminary students gather inside the old church to sing afternoon prayers. Amid the war fervor, enrollment is booming, with 200 boys. Ten years ago there were 120.
Mr. Knesevic, assistant to the Krajina Serb presidency, says his people aren't about to budge, even if war comes next month.
"The Krajina people don't have a choice," he says. "This is our only country. We are foreigners in Serbia, too. Here you have your home, your friends. You have your own land. You have the graves of your parents. We don't want to be a displaced people.
"And we also know that Croatia doesn't want us. They only want our territory."