VUKOVAR, Yugoslavia -- The old man clutched any visitor. "I don't know where is my son," he said. "They have taken him off the bus along with the others. But he was not a soldier, he did not fight." Stjepan Matic seemed not to comprehend where or who he was. His wife cried, "I want my son back."
The Matics, like thousands of others, have been physically and psychologically pulled apart in the three-month orgy of Serb-Croat fighting in Vukovar that ended with the town's surrender last week.
Mr. Matic, who is a Croat, said he and his family shared a basement with Serbian neighbors. "We lived together with Zika and Soka Maksimovic; we ate together; when we left Vukovar, we kissed each other. We don't regret it. Don't believe that all Croats hate all Serbs. But we have lost everything."
What angered thousands of refugees as they left Vukovar on a grueling three-day roundabout ride to other parts of Croatia was that the army had hauled off all able-bodied Croatian men for interrogation -- to find out, as one colonel put it, "if any of them have bloodied their hands."
Among those taken off the bus was Mr. Matic's son, Darko.
It is Croat-Serb hatred, however, that key Serbian politicians are now counting on -- and whipping up with propaganda -- as their plans for the future of eastern Croatia begin to emerge. With Vukovar fallen, the battles are moving on.
Fierce fighting is raging about 19 miles to the north in Osijek, which may become the next Vukovar.
Arkan Raznjatovic, the leader of the Serbian irregulars fighting alongside the army, is determined that it will be. He proudly held up his left hand to show a wound inflicted by Croatian guardsmen as he declared: "We are going on to Osijek now!"
Obscured by the thunder of the battles, the men who plan to take over the region are carrying out the first stages of their scheme to turn this part of eastern Croatia into an autonomous region populated only by Serbs. It would be a region, they say, associated with Serbia and independent from Croatia.
They already have formed a government headed by Prime Minister Goran Hadzic and a parliament that held its first session in the ruins of Vukovar -- not far from a poster riddled with bullet holes depicting Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and his slogan, "We Ourselves Will Decide the Future of Our Croatia."
According to Mr. Hadzic, an estimated 4,000 Croatian soldiers died at Vukovar, while the number of civilian casualties was "in the thousands." There are no official figures on the number of federal soldiers and Serbian guerrillas killed, but they are unofficially estimated at "several thousands."
"A rebuilt Vukovar will be the capital of our SAO [Serbian autonomous region]," Mr. Hadzic said. He has obtained from the Serbian-led federal army a powerful lever in dealings with Croatia: an agreement that an estimated 4,000 Croatian prisoners of war taken in Vukovar will be tried by his "government."
North of Vukovar and Osijek, in the area of Baranja, which is already under Serbian control and which also would form part of the SAO, a pilot program seen as a test for the future is growing: Serbian refugees from Croatia are being quietly moved into 4,700 farms and homesteads of Croats who fled from the army.
So far, 365 families have agreed to move in. Most are Serbs who have fled western Slavonia in Croatia.
Several Serbian refugees have refused to move into the homes of others. But those who have are weary and glad of any respite. In the village of Viroviko, one couple -- who would give only their first names, Milorad and Smilja, both 30 -- were typical.
"We wanted to come to escape," Milorad said. "Day by day things were getting worse [in western Slavonia]. Before, nobody cared if you were a Serb or a Croat, but gradually it changed. We left our home when Croatians set off a shell in our vineyards."
Smilja felt relief. The strain and worry over dwindling winter fuel supplies had taken their toll on her, as they had on the estimated half-million refugees who have fled their homes, most now living with host families.
Smilja wanted to be back in her own home. This was the next best thing. "We are pretty confused by all the events, but we feel more free here; nobody is threatening us. We have just arrived, and this is not so pleasant to take someone's house, but there is little other way out."