In rebellious Serb Krajina, a massacre becomes mishap

September 14, 1995|By Fawn Vrazo | Fawn Vrazo,Knight-Ridder News Service

GRUBORI, Croatia -- Farm animals wander through this once-vibrant hamlet. Goats badly in need of milking stand on porches. Starving pigs root through trash. Donkeys bray in the gardens, while distressed sheep huddle against stone walls. The air is filled with constant wailing from hungry cats.

When winter comes, the animals probably will die.

Like the people.

Grubori's human residents are all dead or departed. Six were killed late last month in a massacre that is being shrugged off in Croatia as one of war's mishaps.

On one bloody day, Aug. 25, Milos Grubor, an 80-year-old invalid, was shot behind his ear and in his back as he lay in bed in his pajamas. Jovo Grubor, 65, was found in a field with his throat either slashed or destroyed by an exploding bullet. Duro Karanovic, 41, and Mika Grubor, 51, were found shot through the head in another field. The charred body of Marija Grubor, 90, was found in her torched house. A sixth resident, Jovan-Damjan Grubor, 73, is missing and believed to be buried somewhere under the roof of his collapsed home.

No one knows or is saying who killed the residents of Grubori. But there are strong suspicions.

The six all were Serbs -- residents of the rebellious Serb Krajina area of Croatia that was retaken by the Croatian army early last month. Tens of thousands of Krajina residents fled the area as Croatian soldiers moved in, leaving behind only small pockets of mostly elderly Serbs, such as the last residents of Grubori.

Croatian officials in the capital, Zagreb, say there was never any need for the area's Serbian residents to flee. Officially, they have invited them to return.

But United Nations officials say that, in fact, a campaign of terror is sweeping the hamlets that are the heart and soul of Krajina.

In the month since the army offensive ended, U.N. observers say, the Serbs who stayed behind have been threatened and harassed by Croatian soldiers and other Croats. Their homes are being looted and set ablaze, and they are being forced to turn over their few possessions of value -- money, liquor, food -- to wandering groups of men in soldiers' uniforms.

Others have not been as lucky as that. There are no estimates of the number of Serbs, such as the residents of Grubori, found slain in the last few weeks. But U.N. reports contain instance after instance of elderly Serbs being killed.

"Heinous crimes against the remaining Serb minority are being detected," says one U.N. report dated Sept. 1. It goes on to describe one Serbian hamlet, Radinovic, where five residents ages 55 to 70 were found shot to death. One of the bodies was decapitated -- the head found in a pigsty.

Sitting in the ornate president's palace in Zagreb, government spokeswoman Vesna Skare-Ozbolt last week expressed Croatia's official line on the burnings and killings: They are caused by Serbs themselves.

Some of the shootings occurred as rebel Serbian soldiers exchanged fire with Croatian army forces, she said, and houses were being burned by "Serb paramilitary refugees who came back."

House burning "is not Croatian policy," Ms. Skare-Ozbolt said. "We need every house."

U.N. officials scoff at the explanation. "Serb irregulars in the hills are coming down at night to burn their own homes?" said U.N. spokesman Christopher Gunness in Zagreb. "We think that is a straightforward lie, and we have direct evidence of the Croatian army actually doing this.

"Whether it's sanctioned from above is difficult to say, but we've seen Croatian soldiers looting under the noses" of the Croatian police, Mr. Gunness said last week.

Though part of Croatia, the Krajina has been a predominantly Serbian area for hundreds of years, established as a Christian outpost to resist the military advances of the Ottoman Empire Turks.

Krajina's roots were its hamlets -- small, village-like communities where residents usually bore the same surname, such as Grubor in Grubori, handed down from tribal times hundreds of years ago. Hamlets were more than isolated communities. Even after residents moved to the city to work or go to school, they routinely returned to their hamlets for weekends and vacations. They retired there.

"You destroy the hamlet, and the roots of culture are destroyed," U.N. spokesman Alun Roberts said in Knin, the capital of Krajina.

Mr. Roberts has had a busy time in the last few weeks, driving the rocky mountain roads around Knin to assess the safety of elderly Serbs living in their nearly deserted communities. He sees so many house fires that it has become routine. One was set Sunday in an abandoned Serbian home just a few hundred yards from the United Nations' Knin outpost.

As Mr. Roberts arrived to investigate, a furious Croatian soldier rushed up with a rifle in his hand. He said his own family had been harassed by Serbs. In fact, Serbs' terrorizing and killing of Croatian residents of Krajina was widespread in 1991, when Croatia declared its independence from the former Yugoslavia and Krajina declared itself a Serbian republic.

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