'Ethnic cleansing' turns former nation of Yugoslavia into land of death, terror

July 26, 1992|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE, Serbia -- In the turmoil of Yugoslavia's civil war, the term "ethnic cleansing" has become the most popular euphemism for terrorism and atrocities.

Advanced for the first time a year ago by the notoriously nationalistic Serb politician Vojislav Seselj, it has come to mean the forcible removal of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes in an effort to establish "ethnically pure" areas.

As the people are forced out, symbols of the enemy nationality are systematically erased. Churches are demolished, monuments are ripped up, and ancestral graves are destroyed.

Those resisting have been raped, slain, tortured, put into camps and treated with a brutality not seen in Europe since World War II. Some villages have been razed, others repopulated with the "correct" ethnic group.

The United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Refugees says "ethnic cleansing" is being carried out by all sides: Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

Though separate statistics are not kept for those "ethnically cleansed" -- as opposed to those leaving voluntarily through fear or to escape fighting -- they are thought to make up perhaps one-half of what has now become a desperate tidal wave of refugees and displaced persons.

The latest U.N. statistics put the number of refugees within what used to be Yugoslavia at 2.28 million, with around a half-million having fled to other countries.

The Muslim authorities in Bosnia estimate that since the war began April 5 in Bosnia, one in every three people has left his or her home. They say that they have recorded 7,846 dead and 30,256 wounded, and they estimate that 130,000 people are being held in camps for ethnic exchanges. Some 771,372 have become displaced persons within the Muslim-controlled area, while others have fled outside Bosnia's borders.

All sides have issued lists of villages that have been "ethnically cleansed" of their own population and charge that others in larger towns are being held as what they call "ethnic hostages."

The Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example, say that 70 Serb villages have been "ethnically cleansed:" Vitez, Gracanica, Zivinice, Kupres, Vares, Breza, Olovo, Bradina, Cemerno, Donji Malovani, Sijekovac . . .

But Croats and Muslims have similar lists.

One politician described "ethnic cleansing" matter-of-factly: "The first phase of ethnic cleansing is the firing from work, and the last is removing people to concentration camps or killing them." A stage in between involves pressures and threats to force people of "wrong" nationality or religion to abandon their homes.

Vera Zovko, a Croat from the village that used to be called Hrtkovci, experienced the terror behind the term when she came home from working in the fields in early May.

In her kitchen she found several young men in paramilitary uniforms waiting. She had failed to leave her home when she -- along with all other non-Serbs in the village -- received threatening letters from Seselj's Chetnik Movement. The men had come to do something about her "lack of cooperation."

"They put a paper in front of me and told me to sign. . . ," she said. "They told me that I was an Ustasha [Croatian terrorist] and that if I didn't sign they would cut my head off."

When she refused, they said that perhaps she would like them to cut off the head of her 16-year-old son as well. She signed. The standard form said that she was leaving voluntarily and that she was relinquishing all claims to her property.

In less than a week similar pressures forced Croatian and ethnic Hungarian villagers from 410 homes -- about half the homes -- in Hrtkovci. The village was renamed Srboslavci -- "Serb Celebration" -- and repopulated with Serb refugees.

At a village meeting, the new Serbian village chief warned that just being a Serb did not give a person a right to stay. Those who "continue to be whores, cowards and traitors -- even though they may be Serbs, there is no place for them here," he said.

One man stood up and tried to say that it was necessary to get along and live together "because we are all human beings, and we are like Siamese twins -- we cannot be one without the other."

He was booed out of the Hall of Culture, which the meeting renamed St. Sava Hall after the Serb Orthodox Church's most revered saint.

The non-Serbs from Hrtkovci joined the tidal wave of refugees overburdening the facilities in what was Yugoslavia and knocking on Western Europe's door.

One of the most disturbing aspects is that today's refugee is certain to become tomorrow's revenge-seeker.

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