In an emptied border town, Croatian family tries to rebuild

AFTER THE OUTRAGE

August 14, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

TURANJ, Croatia -- The roses are in full and lush bloom amid the mustard weed in the untended gardens of this blasted and ruined town.

Here is the aftermath, what's left after the ethnic bloodletting subsides and the diplomatic outrage moves on to another place. You come here by accident.

The tiny village on the border between enclaves of Serbs and Croats bears the marks of devastating firefights like the scars of some fierce epidemic: roofs smashed by artillery and the tiles scattered like pottery shards; walls pierced by rockets, crumbling and blackened by fires; splintered beams, dangling wires, every building pocked with the pits of what looks like indiscriminate small-arms fire.

But now in the warm afternoon sun of a summer's day, Turanj has that peculiar stillness of a place where battle has come and gone.

The sounds that break on the air are sharp and clear: a cackling hen, a flapping curtain, and then hammering and a child's voice.

So you walk warily under an arbor heavy with unripe grapes to the back of a broken house with its building blocks exposed like scraped skin.

And you find a young man named Papa Zlatko and his father, Peter, and the two small daughters of his sister and his mother and his grandmother, a very old woman whose wrinkled face is reflected unlined in her grandson's.

"This is my family's house," says Mr. Zlatko, who can make himself understood in English.

But only his grandmother sleeps here now. She refuses to leave the village she has lived in 72 years. Mr. Zlatko's father has lived in this house 30 years.

"Good, solid house," Mr. Zlatko says.

Six rocket grenades hit it, smashing gaping wounds in the tile block walls, scattering parquet flooring like hundreds of Scrabble tiles, destroying the furniture accumulated in more than one lifetime.

"My mother," says Mr. Zlatko. He has a picture of a beautiful young girl in a confirmation dress holding a spray of gladiolas. The frame is twisted, the glass broken and the old picture gritty with plaster dust.

He and his father are repairing the house. Peter Zlatko has already filled in two shell holes with salvaged blocks. He thinks it will take far more than a year to finish. He shrugs.

"I am soldier," says Mr. Zlatko. "My father is soldier. In the Croatian army. Of course."

Mr. Zlatko is 32 and a front-line infantryman. His father, 63, is more like a security guard. Both fought in the defense of their village. Successfully in the sense they kept the Serbs out. Not so successfully in terms of destruction and the number of people driven from their homes.

Once 1,500 people lived here, Mr. Zlatko says. Only 200 are left, but only 10 sleep in the village. There's no water and no electricity.

So, just before the border closes at 4 p.m., Mr. Zlatko loads everybody except his grandmother into an old mustard-colored Wartburg and heads off for Kalovac, where they all live now, except the grandmother.

At the last checkpoint, a big security guy in a tank top offers you a beer and a look at a border post. He drives past the bombed-out supermarket and the equally wrecked kindergarten to where the road ends at two big concrete barriers.

A half-dozen policemen and soldiers man this sleepy post. The Croatians chat about how they fought with only rifles and pistols while the Serbs had rockets and artillery.

Fifty feet in front of the concrete barriers, about a dozen olive-drab tank mines block the road. Another 50 feet farther on, the Serbs have established their own line of mines.

"All made in Yugoslavia," says a soldier named Zeyko.

Down across the line a man in a white T-shirt carrying an assault rifle walks down the street toward the mines. He turns off into a driveway.

"We don't shoot," says Zeyko.

Then Turanj becomes still again and the scratchy sound of summer insects hangs in the air.

And tomorrow the reporters and photographers who stumbled on the place will search for refugees. They won't be hard to find. This war has made hundreds of thousands of them, including most of the folks of Turanj.

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