‘Cleansing’ Comes Home to Serbia; Hungarians, Croats Driven from Towns

The Washington Post
August 30, 1992

HRTKOVCI, Yugoslavia – Three Serbs walked into Zladko Klobucar’s Courvoisier Cafe a few days ago and placed an unusual order.

They told Klobucar, a Croat who uses a wheelchair, to leave town in 24 hours — or they would wheel him into the Sava River.

He refused to comply. The thugs have not yet returned, but Klobucar said he believes they will. It was the third time in a month that Serbs threatened to kill him unless he abandoned his cafe and rolled out of Hrtkovci, where his family has lived for a century or so.

“There’s a lot of tension here. There’s a lot of pressure, and there’s a lot of fear,” Klobucar said.

This is not blood-spattered Bosnia, where Serbs are carving out a new state for themselves through a notorious campaign of forced relocation and sporadic killing of non-Serbs known as “ethnic cleansing.” This is Serbia, the defiant motherland, where ultra-nationalists have decided in recent months that ethnically impure spots need some cleansing too.

Hrtkovci is one of those spots.

Relief officials say that tens of thousands of Croats and Hungarians in Serbia’s Vojvodina province have been forced from their homes through sustained intimidation and occasional violence. An identical policy of ethnic cleansing is being applied to Serbia’s Sandzak region, where Slavic Muslims are also fleeing for their lives.

In Hrtkovci, the cleansing is being done mostly by newcomers, Serb refugees from the wars in Bosnia and Croatia who have decided that the village belongs to them, not to its longtime residents. Their methods are as brutal as the fighting they left behind.

According to Hrtkovci residents, a Croat-Hungarian man was decapitated in May after he tried to stand up to the cleansers. The man, Mijat Stefanac, was taken away by a group of ultra-nationalists, and later his headless body was found a few miles away.

Hrtkovci is a farming community that used to have about 4,000 residents, a mixture of Serbs, Croats and Hungarians who lived together without problems until the war refugees arrived.

The newcomers banded together under the leadership of a Hrtkovci Serb named Ostoja Sibincic, who ignited the campaign of terror. Sibincic’s armed followers fire random shots at night and throw hand grenades into the back yards of non-Serbs, villagers say. They visit the Croats and Hungarians, telling them, point blank, to get out of town and to sign documents relinquishing their homes and land.

Most have complied. Julijana Molnar has not. She is a sturdy Hungarian peasant who fought back tears as she rolled fresh dough on her kitchen table and talked about the nightmarish events of recent weeks.

About a month ago, several Serb refugees entered her yard uninvited and taunted her, saying that she must not sell her cows and pigs because they wanted them. Every few days, she said, they stop by her house and pester her to leave.

When she goes shopping in town, they call her “Hungarian scum” and ask why she is still around. She described coming home one day and finding a butcher knife driven into her kitchen table.

“It’s difficult to be a foreigner in your own village,” she said. “My family came here 350 years ago, we didn’t just come yesterday. We have nowhere to go. There’s not a corner in Yugoslavia for us.”

The village’s longtime Serb residents are outraged by the newcomers’ reign of terror. But if they speak up, they become targets too.

“This is unbearable,” said a Hrtkovci Serb who is under pressure from the newcomers to resign his municipal job and declined to give his name. “Groups of 10 or 15 of these people break into a yard and make the owner leave. They give him an hour or two.”

The newcomers have given the village a new name, Srbislavci, which sounds more authentically Serbian. They drive through town waving Serbian flags and flashing the three-fingered Serb salute. Their favorite hangout is a cafe where a stereo blares ultra-nationalist folk songs.

Branko, an unshaven mechanic who gave only his first name, is one of the newcomers. He says the non-Serbs have left voluntarily, without intimidation. He is happy that they are gone, leaving Serbia to the Serbs.

“It’s better that way,” he said. “There are no problems.”

A few dozen Hrtkovci residents — Serbs and non-Serbs — went to Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and what remains of Yugoslavia, earlier this month to plead with the Yugoslav justice minister to take action against the violent newcomers. Federal authorities instructed the local police, who have stood by in past months, to arrest Sibincic, the ringleader.

Sibincic is behind bars, but some Hrtkovci residents say the police are merely pretending to be against ethnic cleansing and will release him in a few weeks, if not days.

“If they let him out, we’re finished,” a farmer said. “He’ll act like a wounded animal. He’ll want to get revenge. We won’t even have enough time to pack a bag.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.