Region ‘Liberated’ by Serbs Isolated, Desolate

The Washington Post
August 3, 1992

TOPUSKO, Croatia – The Serbs who control this part of Croatia describe it as liberated territory. Topusko has been liberated of running water, electricity and virtually all its Croat inhabitants.

Shops are closed — they have been liberated of their goods — but Topusko’s lack of amenities causes no great hardship here because aside from U.N. troops there are few people in “Sector North,” the U.N. designation for this once bustling tourist region.

Seven months after Croatia’s Serb-Croat civil war ended with a U.N.-sponsored truce, Topusko’s Serb authorities continue to force non-Serbs from the region, according to a recent report by U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

“Terrorist methods, such as physical abuse, coercion, harassment and even killings have been used to force non-Serb families to leave their homes,” Boutros-Ghali said of Serb expulsion practices here — the same methods that are creating hundreds of thousands of refugees in neighboring Bosnia, where powerful Serb militia forces are well on their way to forcing a favorable partition of the republic among its Serbs, Croats and Slavic Muslims.

For its part, the Croatian government retaliates by trying to isolate the Serbs here from their sources of supply, cutting off food and fuel shipments and reducing traffic into the region to a trickle.

The U.N. troops have been here since January, to keep peace between Croatian government forces and heavily armed Serb insurgents after civil warfare in the republic left more than 10,000 people dead, 800,000 homeless and about a third of the former Yugoslav republic under local Serb control. Outgunned and outmaneuvered by the insurgents — who were strongly backed by neighboring Serbia — the Croatian government agreed to a U.N. armistice plan that would recognize temporary Serb administration of the lost lands under close supervision of international peace keepers.

Serbs made up about 10 percent of Croatia’s population before the old Yuguslav federation began to break into independent republics last summer, but they formed a majority in the region around Topusko and in much of southeastern and east-central Croatia. In launching their guerrilla war against the new Croatian state, the insurgents claimed these lands by ancient sovereign right and declared they were being discriminated against by Croatia’s nationalist government. Not long after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbs in this region declared their independence from Croatia, proclaiming a 40-by-90-mile crescent of territory along the border with Bosnia as the autonomous Republic of Krajina.

Now, this territory looms large in the strategy behind the continuing fighting in Bosnia, where local Serb forces — again backed by Serbia — have won control of about two-thirds of the republic and are on the verge of securing a Serb-controlled corridor from “Krajina” across northern Bosnia to the borders of Serbia, thus carving a “Greater Serbia” out of the heart of the old Yugoslav federation. The Serbs in Croatia are “desperate for the corridor,” said a Western diplomat. “Without it, they can’t hang on.”

The journey into this region begins at a Croatian checkpoint, where police try their best to prevent would-be visitors from entering; at the same time, a Croatian-registered car must be denuded of its markings because Serbs in the territory shoot at such vehicles, U.N. monitors warn. The United Nations refers to the no man’s land between the last Croatian checkpoint and first Serb checkpoint as a “pink zone,” an incongruous choice of color for a desolate area that is the scene of frequent hit-and-run attacks by armed Croats and Serbs.

Except for occasional firefights and rare long-range shellings, the region is eerily quiet these days. The drive into Topusko takes a visitor past rich but untended farmland; many houses have been burned out or damaged by shellfire. A few towns along the road are lightly inhabited, but road traffic is scarce, and a passing car without license plates draws stares.

Before the war, Topusko drew tourists to its natural spas, but now the only people staying at the main hotel are U.N. soldiers, mostly Nigerians and Dutch. Bathing water gushes sizzling from a geothermal spring, and the U.N. soldiers haul bucketfuls to their rooms. The food they eat and the bottled water they drink are delivered in special U.N. convoys from Croatia.

The one commodity in abundance is weapons. The U.N. truce called for local Serbs to surrender their heavy weapons, but a U.N. commander said the Serbs have so many — howitzers, rockets, antiaircraft guns — that he cannot hope to seize them all.

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.