Croat town on its own

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PAKRAC, Croatia -- The locals know her as Crazy Ljuba.

For 2 1/2 years, Ljuba Selthufer sat tight in her small, fourth-floor apartment, 50 meters from one of the most fiercely contested front lines in the former Yugoslavia. By day, she would lean out her windows and yell -- to Serbs on one side and Croats on the other -- to end the civil war or shoot her and get it over with. By night, stray bullets flew through her bedroom window, piercing her wall and her sleep.

"Where was I supposed to be?" said Selthufer, 57, explaining why she stayed. "This is my home. People have their place. This is my place."

About 9,000 people used to call Pakrac home. It's a town that by most nonpartisan estimates is equal parts Croat and Serb. Maybe 4,000 remain, mostly Croat, mostly old, mostly poor. Slowly, cautiously, quietly, Serbian refugees who left their homes during the war are moving back.

It was in Pakrac that one of the greatest calamities of the late 20th century began. Here, and in a few other towns in Croatia and Bosnia, politically polarized ethnic groups took up arms against each other nearly eight years ago. The Yugoslav civil war came early to Pakrac, and it hit hard.

But, while international attention is focused on Kosovo and the start of NATO airstrikes last week, and as politicians wonder aloud how long they will have to commit resources to this troubled region, the last aid workers and volunteers are packing up and leaving Pakrac and similar towns.

The United Nations' mandate here is over. The mass graves in the valley below have been excavated and cataloged. Many, but not all, of the estimated 10,000 land mines in and around Pakrac -- more than double the town's current number of residents -- have been cleared. The infrastructure operates, if barely. Pakrac is on its own to do the rest, though its economy is destroyed, and it is devoid of its youth and confidence. Selthufer and her neighbors knew this day would come. That doesn't mean they're ready to face it.

"Everything before the war was great," she said. "Now, it's not very happy."

Still, they are determined.

"Croatia is a poor country now," said Roki Tasic, a Croat who moved to Pakrac late last year. "But Croatia is a great country, with many resources. In 20 years, Croatia will be as rich as Switzerland."

Two old churches stand in the center of Pakrac, on opposite corners of the town's main square. One is Orthodox, built by Pakrac's Serbs. The other is Catholic, the spiritual home of the Croats. Neither holds much sanctuary. Their spires stand in protective scaffolding, as much to stop them from falling as to rebuild them. Though the Croatian church holds services, few venture inside the burned-out frame of the Serbian church for fear of mines.

'The cease-fire line'

Between the churches ran an invisible line that divided Pakrac. It ran through the square, the length of the town, and right beside Selthufer's apartment building. It was called "the cease-fire line," drawn by the United Nations six months after Serbian military first shelled the town, in August 1991. That was a cruel misnomer. Only a short distance from Serb-held Bosnia, Pakrac was a key part of the Krajina region, the major front between Croats and Serbs. The town was taken and retaken five times during the war.

The line created a dead zone in the center of town. Locals didn't approach it, fearing they might be caught in the cross-fire. Fighting continued until May 1995, when Croatian troops overran the Serbian side.

Pakrac, like all the neighboring towns, does not look like a place where a war was fought only four years ago; it looks like a war was fought there yesterday. Not one building escaped without scars, and nothing has been rebuilt. In the center of town, nearly every other building is a pile of rubble. The fronts of stores that haven't offered goods in years bear bullet holes and fresh nationalist graffiti. The sign for the old state department store -- "Buducnost," or "future" -- still stands, though nothing is left of the store.

On one street corner is a small billboard, one that could have stood anywhere in former Communist Europe. The billboard depicts a father standing proudly with his family, pointing to where a new housing project gleams in the distance -- the picture of progressive modernity. Yet, except for Ljuba Selthufer's building and a few others, probably little of the planned project will be completed.

Selthufer left Pakrac during the first eight months of the war, frightened away by the artillery shelling. But, in 1992, falsely encouraged by the idea of a cease-fire, she returned to her apartment. She found its windows broken and its contents looted. For four years, until basic services in the area were resumed, she lived without heat, gas or electricity, and she carried her water up four flights of stairs.

With the help of her son and grandson -- her remaining family -- she has plastered the bullet holes and installed an oven and stove. Her monthly pension doesn't cover her rent, utilities and blood-pressure medicine. She eats with friends such as Roki Tasic.

Tasic is one of about 7,000 Croats who settled in Kosovo when Yugoslavia was a peaceful country. When the war started, all but about 500 left Kosovo, further deepening the split between majority Albanians and minority Serbs. Tasic, a carpenter, was one of the few who stayed. But when Albanian resistance turned into war, he fled to Macedonia and from there made his way to Croatia by way of Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. He arrived in Pakrac about four months ago and works as a fix-it man. He was working on an apartment near Selthufer's when the two were introduced.

He needed a place to stay, she needed help.

"She has a home, but she has no money to pay for anything," Tasic said. "I do, so I help her."

With the money he makes from odd jobs and errands, Tasic is able to keep the two of them fed. They survive the way most in Pakrac do, on a daily basis -- as in, "How am I going to get by today?"

The residents used to have help from a sympathetic international community. The Red Cross gave free or cut-rate medical care. The United Nations helped repair buildings and infrastructure. Volunteers from around the world provided basic assistance to the elderly, who were practically the only people remaining.

But the volunteers are gone, as is the U.N. A small Red Cross office remains, as well as a small humanitarian office from the European Union. Still, now that most of the land mines are gone and electricity, running water and gas are available, the international community's mission here appears finished, though the work of rebuilding Pakrac is far from over.

Up the street from Selthufer's apartment sits the Serbian neighborhood of Japaga. Most of the homes are empty. Many of the local Serbs fled, except the elderly.

To the volunteers who came here, Japaga was "Somerset," the Serbs who lived there "Somersetians." Talking openly about the Serbs and their community in the company of Croats was not considered wise. But in this village dominated by Croats, it was "Somerset" where the volunteers were needed most. Only those residents too old to flee and too stubborn to die remained.

Sense of community lost

Once, the elderly Serbs could have gotten assistance from the young people of Pakrac, from Serbs and Croats alike. In post-war Pakrac, however, that sense of community is lost. That's what the volunteers were in Pakrac to provide. Chopping wood, doing simple repairs and generally helping the elderly survive, the volunteers were supposed to be setting an example. Now that they're gone, it's unknown who will set that example.

Neither side can claim innocence. Both sides shot at people because of their ethnicity. Croatian commanders in the region were just as guilty of ethnic cleansing as their Serbian counterparts. Here, though, it was the Croats who won and the Serbs who were "cleansed" out of Pakrac.

A few more Serbs move back to Pakrac each week, but while many used to live side by side with their Croatian neighbors in the town, most Serbs are moving into outlying areas such as Japaga. But the locals say relations are improving.

"It's good and bad," Tasic said. "It all depends on how the parents advise their children. People are getting closer -- slowly. But they are getting closer."

The residents will tell you that neither Croats nor Serbs alone can rebuild Pakrac. The town was built by both sides, working together. And, the locals say, it will be rebuilt the same way.

Sam Greene is a reporter in Eastern Europe.

Pub Date: 03/28/99

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