April 11, 1997

Croatian Serbs want international protection

By Jovan Kovacic

VUKOVAR, Croatia - Exhausted by war, wary of their leaders and unwanted in Serbia, Serbs in eastern Slavonia are still undecided whether to stay or flee but many pin their hopes on the international community to protect them once the enclave reverts to Croatian control.

She queued along with some 50 other Serbs from all over Croatia for Croatian papers which will enable her to cast her ballot Sunday in local elections for the first time since war broke out in the former Yugoslav republic six years ago.

Serbs in Eastern Slavonia rebelled against Croatia's independence from federal Yugoslavia in 1991 and carved out their own state, loosely linked with two other rebel enclaves.

But Zagreb recaptured the other two and agreed to peaceful reintegration of Eastern Slavonia, now monitored by some 5,000 U.N. peacekeepers (UNTAES), whose mandate expires on July 15.

Zagreb has pledged significant minority rights to Eastern Slavonia's Serbs and slashed an inflated list of Serb war crimes suspects down to 150 names to help satisfy Western conditions for urgent reconstruction aid.

Many Serbs, while signing up for Croatian citizenship papers qualifying them to vote, remain skeptical of Croatian conciliatory gestures made under immense pressure by the West, bearing in mind reports of persistent local persecution of Serbs who remained in areas reconquered in 1995.

True or not, these rumors and allegations have become facts in the minds of the scared refugees and local population who fear the wrath of returning Croats.

UNTAES believes that up to 25,000 might flee but the rest would stay. Some 60,000 Serbs have already obtained Croatian citizenship papers.

Almost half the estimated 120,000 Serbs in Eastern Slavonia are refugees. They will have to cede housing to returning Croat owners but face grave obstacles going back to homes in western Croatia destroyed or now occupied by Croats.

``They are virtually boxed in. They can't return to their homes in Croatia and can't flee any more. Serbia, the only avenue of escape, will not have them,'' a senior UNTAES official told Reuters.

International aid organizations describe the refugee situation in Yugoslavia, already saddled by 600,000 refugees, as disastrous due to its moribund economy and international donors' fatigue.