Serbs, Croats and unhealed wounds Serb recalls how his parents were killed by Croats.

October 01, 1991|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Evening Sun Staff

This man who is a Serbian Yugoslav recites his litany of the awful hurts of World War II as if they happened yesterday.

And as you listen, you realize that in the long history of animosity between Serbs and Croats, the 1940s were yesterday.

"I am born in Bosnia in a village called Blagaj," Vosjislav Velkjo says.

Velkjo owns a foundry in southwest Baltimore where he and his wife, Julia, and three Serbian friends have come to talk about the civil war now raging in Yugoslavia between Serbians and Croatians.

They fear the horrors of World War II are being re-enacted today. They see the Yugoslav army as the protector of Serbians in Croatia from radical Croat nationalists.

"The Croatians," says Velkjo, "who were calling themselves Ustashe, who are close to our village, living with us together like brothers before the Second War, after the war started, turned against us."

Velkjo was born in 1935. He's 56 now, a trim, black-haired, handsome man not given to smiling. He was about 7 when World War II came to his village. He speaks a slow, serviceable English, choosing his words carefully.

Julia, his wife, interrupts, comments, anticipates, moving Velkjo's narrative along like a member of the chorus in a tragedy.

Her brother, a professor who was dean of a university, is now a refugee from Croatia. He lived in Osijek, a city where heavy fighting has been reported.

"Together with Germans, Austrians and Italians," Velkjo says, picking up his story, "Croatians, who are called Ustashe, they catch our Serbs, the old people, children and other people and they put them down these big holes that are called jama."

Bogdan Miscevic, a painter of Yugoslav "primitives" who has lived in Baltimore for years, explains that a jama is a natural grotto common in Yugoslavia.

Miscevic worries about his sister, who lives in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. He hasn't been able to get in touch with her.

"They put thousands and thousands of people in the same hole," Velkjo says. "Then they shoot into the hole. And they smile and drink and dance. They celebrate.

"So was the husband of my sister killed," Velkjo says.

Ustashe is described by the Encyclopaedia Britannia as a Fascist terrorist organization of radical nationalists that turned Croatia into a country modeled on "the most extremist [Nazi] formation, the SS."

To "purify" Croatia, the Britannia says, "the Ustashe persecuted and killed many thousands of Orthodox Serbs, Jews and Muslims."

Among them, Velkjo says, was his mother.

He describes women and children fleeing from his village into a forest during a battle between Yugoslavia partisan guerrillas and Nazi and Ustashe troops.

"Because she was an old woman she is going only into the woods close to the edge, at the first border, to cover herself, like hundreds of old women and the children they were carrying.

"Ustashe come and with knives kill my mother and one of the older girls." His sister, he says. Another sister was left alive to tell the tale.

"That girl lost her voice," Velkjo says. "From that time on she never talked again."

He and his father found his mother decapitated.

"She was there lying without her head," he says. "Her head on one side, her body on the other. Partisans bury her.

"Now I tell you how my father died."

His father, he says, was questioned and beaten by the Ustashe. They wanted to know where an older brother who had been in the Yugoslavian army was. His father didn't know.

"The last time they beat him," Velkjo says. "He came home and die after 24 hours from the beatings."

His father was 65 or 66. Velkjo was the youngest of nine children. His brother was, in fact, in a German concentration camp, a prisoner of war.

"Now," he says, "this time they're starting to work again the same thing they did in 1941, like they did with Nazis.

"I can't believe it that this happened again," he says. "Croatian politicians are working a long time on organizing what they call 'unfinished war,' what they call 1941 to 1945, fighting against the Serbs."

"Like an unfinished movie," Julia Velkjo says.

Roots of the division run all the way back to the Schism between the Roman and Eastern Orthodox religions in 1054. Serbs are primarily Orthodox, Croats Roman Catholic.

Conflicts between the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Empire exacerbated the split. World War War I, of course, started after a Serb shot the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo.

During World War II, various nationalist, Communist, monarchist, ethnic, pro-Allies and pro-Nazi groups fought one another. After the war, Josip Broz Tito, a Croat who led the Communist partisans, held the country together almost by sheer force of will -- and a fairly stiff police state -- until his death in 1980.

Franjo Tudjman, now president of the Croatian Republic, was one of Tito's generals. Becoming increasingly nationalist, he was tossed out of the Communist Party about 1967 and imprisoned for several years.

"For 46 years, we lived together to build a new Yugoslavia," Velkjo says. "We are all South Slavs living together. Building our houses, building together, building our hotels, building our factories. Living all together. And being proud for our work and lives together."

"The Serbs who live a long time in Croatia fight for their lands, their houses," Velkjo says. "They are a minority and the Yugoslavian army comes to help them, coming between the Serbs and Croats. They want to keep peace.

"The politicians are always sitting at the table and talking for something they can never achieve," he says. "How long we want to fight we don't know. We want peace for Yugoslavia because we know what peace means."

"But if we don't have army," Julia says, "we'll be killed overnight."

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