Serbs, Croats and unhealed wounds Croat says only path to peace is independence.

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

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The rift between Croats and Serbs in Yugoslavia doesn't look any more narrow from the Croatian side. The president of the Croatian American Coalition calls the situation in Yugoslavia "really tragic. Innocent Croatian people are dying."

"Only because Croatians are a nation that wants freedom, independence and democracy like anybody else," says Sime Letina, a Croatian nationalist who lives now in Gaithersburg, Md.

"Because of this," he says, "the Serbian government, which is still Communist, they actually try to use Serbian minority in Croatia as an excuse to force Croatian people to stay in Yugoslavia, which would be Communist and dominated by Serbs."

Letina, a tall, rangy, dark-haired man who catalogs books at the Library of Congress, was born in a small village called Zadai on the Dalmatian Coast of Yugoslavia, or Croatia as he would say. He served in the Yugoslav army in the early 1960s.

"In the army," he says, "I couldn't even speak the Croatian which I learned from my mother. They objected."

He now considers the Yugoslav army an instrument of Serbian "hegemony," a word he uses often.

Letina, 48, left Yugoslavia in August 1966. He spent about 13 months in a refugee camp in Austria before coming to America. He joined the Croatian Republican Party in 1971, and helped form the Croatian National Congress, an umbrella group for Croats in exile, in 1976. He was secretary of a kind of inner parliamentary committee called the sabor.

American news people annoy him when they call Croatians an ethnic group.

"We are a nation, not a tribe, almost 1,200 years old," he says. "Croatians here are an ethnic group, but not in Croatia. Our nation goes back to 925 when we have the first Croatian king, Tomislav."

Letina says there is also a Croatian minority in Serbia.

L "They have much less rights than Serbs in Croatia," he says.

The solution to today's problems in Yugoslavia, he says, lies in "peaceful separation and creation of independent states of Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia, all republics."

Then these free states can make economic and other alliances, he says, similar perhaps to the European Community, or to Benelux.

"Yugoslavia is the cause of all these fights," he says. "When Yugoslavia ceases to exist completely, and these republics become independent states, then peace is possible."

Letina anticipates Serbian charges of World War II atrocities by the Croatian Ustashe, the radical nationalists led by Ante Pavelic, a Zagreb lawyer who became leader of Croatia under German occupation during World War II.

"They should go back in history to 1928," he say, "when [Stepan] Radic was shot by Serbs in the parliament, the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party and two other colleagues.

"It's not only that," he says. "Croatians were second-class citizens in Yugoslavia from 1918 when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established."

The Kingdom became Yugoslavia under King Alexander in 1929. He was assassinated by Ustashe in 1934.

History for Serbs and Croats seems to be a thousand years of unhealed wounds.

"Pavelic came," Letina says, "and said we will fight back and establish by force Croatia democracy if it's necessary.

"So, when Croatia declared independence in 1941, then Serbians in Croatia start violence," he says. "That's how started the unfortunate killing of each other."

The Encyclopaedia Britannica calls Pavelic's state variously subservient to or a puppet of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

According to the Britannica, Ustashe (which means roughly "insurgents") under Pavelic conducted a brutal campaign of repression against not only Serbs, but also Jews, Gypsies and Muslims. Members of the Croatian Peasant Party, incidentally, joined the partisans who fought Pavelic and the Nazis.

Letina counters charges that Pavelic was allied with Nazis by observing that the United States was allied with Communist Russia.

"But that doesn't make America Communist," he says. "Croatians were allies of Nazis not because they liked them, but at that time at least they were tolerant of Croatian independence.

"No," he says, "I don't think they were democratic. Is it possible in war to be democratic?

Letina thinks peace and independence will come to Croatia "sooner or later."

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