Bitter Croatian villagers count the dead after massacre by Serbian irregulars

December 19, 1991|By Stephen Engelberg | Stephen Engelberg,New York Times News Service

VOCIN, Yugoslavia -- When Serbian irregulars withdrew last weekend from this picturesque hillside village 80 miles east of Zagreb, they left behind a vista of death and destruction.

Drunken men in uniform, backed by at least one tank, moved methodically through this community of 2,000, blasting Croatian houses, killing civilians, and blowing to pieces the 550-year-old Roman Catholic Church at the town center, witnesses say.

Now that the Serbian occupiers have gone, the local Croatian authorities counting the bodies at a makeshift morgue said that the toll in Vocin and two smaller nearby villages had reached 43, with many of the victims women and the elderly.

More than 30 people are still missing.

Grieving residents of Vocin and surrounding communities gathered at the door of the morgue, waiting for a local judge to tell them if missing relatives were among the dead.

The scene is a microcosm of the war in Yugoslavia: mindless violence of neighbor against neighbor, civilians suffering at the hands of undisciplined killers pursuing a strategy of terror to frighten people into fleeing.

Thousands of women, children and other civilians have died in this war, many from knife wounds or gunshots fired at point-blank range, according to autopsy reports and frightened witnesses.

Vera Doric, a 58-year-old who hid in a cornfield with her 2-year-old granddaughter, recalled: "I saw them set a house on fire, and they wouldn't let the people out. There were local Serbs going with them, showing them to the houses. They had a list."

Vocin, a village that despite its Croatian geography is 80 percent Serbian, according to a local official, is part of a Serbian enclave in the freezing Papuk hills. Four months ago, local Serbs and Serbian irregular troops seized control and held the area without any support from the Yugoslav national army.

The Serbs began falling back from the region last week, forced back by a Croatian offensive. With more than 20,000 Serbian refugees streaming out of the towns and villages, the Croats took over.

As a light snow dusted the tangled rubble that was once the Church of our Lady of Vocin, the Rev. Nikola Sankovic surveyed a neatly typed list of 34 parishioners who died. He said he had identified each body as a Croat. The list included 17 people over the age of 60, 15 of them women.

"This is apocalyptic," he said, standing before the remains of his church. "It's pure hatred."

At the morgue, a team of pathologists worked to establish causes of death.

Their chief, who declined to be identified by name, said his preliminary finding was that all had died by violence, either from gunshot wounds, incineration or blast. In one case, he said, death was caused by an ax wound. Bodies covered with blankets lay on the floor, faces frozen in open-mouthed agony.

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