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October 17, 1994
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 160
On The Spot: Knin

The Fate Of The Krajina

by Uros Komlenovic

The further you go on the road west from Belgrade, through Serb-held territories, the more obviously strict the checkpoint controls, the more unstable and impoverished the newly created states, and the more expensive the fuel. Along the roads, stands sell petrol instead of fruit and diesel in plastic bottles. So it's not surprising that the cafe near the Drina border crossing on the Serbian side is called Biznis and that cynics say Shell had a good harvest this year. A liter of petrol sells for 2 to 2.5 DEM.

On the other side of the Drina, in the Semberija region of northeastern Bosnia, the prices are slightly different: 3 to 3.5 DEM a liter. Petrol costs four DEM in Brcko, five DEM in Banja Luka, and eight DEM in Knin, and wasn't available even at that price for a while. Despite Krajina Prime Minister Borislav Mikelic's insistence that Serbia's blockade of the Bosnian Serb Republic (RS) does not extend to the Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK), Knin didn't get a drop of fuel for a month. Intercity traffic stopped in the RSK, schools closed, the Knin hospital got its fuel from the army, and two people died because there was no way to get them to hospital.

Mikelic promised that petrol was coming in through eastern Slavonia (it's only in transit in the FRY), but his promised period of a couple of days keeps getting longer. Tankers appeared only last weekend after arguments with ``brethren in Serbia'' and probably after the RS was heavily bribed for the use of its roads. Belgrade's message was clear.

In Knin itself, food is plentiful, but no one is still joking: ``Lift the sanctions because we're getting fat.'' Meat is cheap, but you can't buy a lot of it because electricity is in short supply. The first snows in Lika brought joy because local electricity suppliers depend upon rain and snow falls. The electricity that comes from Serbia is split with the Bosnian Serbs, leaving the RSK sorely lacking. Njegos' poem ``Something for everyone and nothing is left'' applies to cigarettes as well. By the time everyone takes their share along the road, the price of cigarettes doubles in Knin.

Industrial production is almost not worth mentioning. Most people make a living from agriculture, but cynics say the spoils of war (especially after Drnis was taken) provided good reserves. Interestingly enough, a black market exchange rate doesn't seem to exist; Serbia's banks and the imposed hyperinflation had previously sucked almost all of the foreign currency out of the RSK and now no one is selling. Smugglers and wheeler-dealers are making use of every opportunity and the luxury cars in Knin and all-night parties prove that a new class of war profiteers is emerging. Soldiers earn 80 Dinars a month and the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees from western Bosnia caused the already dramatic humanitarian situation to deteriorate further.

The most difficult thing to deal with is the mood of ``neither war nor peace.'' The constant threats by Croatian political, military and diplomatic leaders provide opportunity for cries of ``never again with them.'' Milosevic's punishment of the Bosnian Serbs has caused fears for the fate of the Krajina, expressions of solidarity with the Bosnian Serbs and a sudden drop in Milosevic's popularity. ``All of the aid we received from Serbia has been well paid for,'' an angry Knin resident said. ``We were good enough for Milosevic while we were dying for his interests and, now that he's got everything that was worth anything out of Krajina and he doesn't need us, he's selling us to Croatia.''

The Belgrade-Pale clash has caused political tensions in Knin and revived old feuds. The fight is between RSK President Milan Martic, Prime Minister Mikelic and Foreign Minister Milan Babic, but none of them is ready to talk about it in public. Mikelic spends most of his time in Belgrade and Babic is successfully hiding from journalists while Martic just told VREME and the Belgrade daily ``Borba'' that this was just pressure upon Krajina to take a side in the Belgrade Pale clash and added that some members of the government were working on a ``the worse, the better'' basis and that he won't allow political chaos, ``even if that means measures that I have the authority to impose.''

Judging by the signals coming out of the underground political battleground, Martic can no longer count upon Belgrade's support which won him the last elections. The reasons lie in his stand on the Belgrade Pale clash. Martic avoided taking Milosevic's side. He even went to Drvar in the RS to symbolically vote, in the name of the RSK, against the Contact Group plan. Belgrade wasn't going to stand for that. The emptiness in Milosevic's heart was filled by Mikelic, who is called Sloba's, i.e. Mira's (Markovic), man in Krajina. Now Mikelic decides on the goods exchange between Serbia and the RSK and his opponents say the difficult supply routes have been made even more difficult. Mikelic knows his popularity can't compare to Martic's and has therefore looked for and found a strong ally in Babic. One time hardliner Babic lost Milosevic's favor after he opposed the Vance plan, but has grown softer since then. He didn't oppose Mikelic's appointment and joined the government as Foreign Minister, knowing that would cost him the support of the Serbian Radical Party. Babic has not commented upon the Belgrade-Pale clash, but the accusations by his Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) for Krajina aimed at RSK Parliament Speaker Branko Vojnica (a Radical) are interpreted as support for Milosevic. Vojnica was accused of acting on whim and strong ties to the Knin and Pale Presidents. Babic's increasingly frequent meetings with Milosevic draw evil comments from Martic supporters.

So Martic and Babic are facing off again (Mikelic is considered a second-rate political player), but they have exchanged places since the last elections in terms of Belgrade's political favor. Martic seems to be relying upon the army and police (including the defence and police ministers), RS President Radovan Karadzic's SDS for the Serb Lands, the Radicals (probably) and the fact that his rating has grown since the people got angry with Milosevic over the RS blockade. Babic heads the strongest RSK political party; he has the support of most ministers, company directors and businessmen as well as Mikelic (including Belgrade) and the media. Martic's information office chief Pero Damjanic complained about the unobjective reporting on TV: ``The head of the TV information program recently banned a statement on the Martic-Milosevic meeting. It seems their editorial policy is aimed at minimalizing or silencing reports on the President's activities.''

Martic's position is easily understood. He has nowhere to turn (Milosevic won't forgive insubordination) and he'll probably follow the hardline policies. ``I haven't changed my opinion and I don't intend to. I advocate stronger defence, the rule of law, stabilization of the economy and good relations with Serbia, Montenegro and the RS, regardless of whether someone likes me or not. The people will decide the fate of the Krajina and I certainly won't accept a solution against the will of the people. I want to form a single Serb state and my personal opinion is that we should never again live with the Croats,'' Martic said.

To illustrate the fact that the Krajina has been neglected by the Belgrade media, he adds: ``They only mention us in the weather forecast and even that isn't always correct.''

Prime Minister Mikelic has seemingly linked his political fate to Belgrade, a place where he's seen more often than in Knin. That certainly won't win him political points in the RSK, but he doesn't seem to care too much. His reward probably lies elsewhere.

The biggest mystery is Babic's position. Babic is keeping quiet and securing maneuvering space. He'll probably try to use his alliance with Mikelic and Belgrade's favor to clash with Martic. He is also probably counting upon the fact that he'll easily get rid of Mikelic later and rule Krajina alone.

The battle is expected to take place on October 25, at a session of Parliament. In the meantime, the scandals and rumors are multiplying. A ``Croatian pamphlet'' appeared in the RSK calling upon the Serbs to ``topple the Chetniks and extremists headed by Milan Martic'' and support Babic, whose party is ``ready to accept cohabitation because it understands that we all lose through war.'' No one knows whether the pamphlet, which is obviously damaging to Babic, was really printed in Croatia.

While the ordinary people are awaiting the battle in confusion, pragmatic politicians (hardly any RSK politicians haven't changed sides at least once) are feverishly assessing the political rivals' chances. Many are disgusted by it all.

``All illusions have been lost and no one is trusted any longer,'' one local analyst says. ``There's an unbelievable amount of hypocrisy on the political scene because almost all officials have moved their families somewhere safe.'' Everyone who could has left, including people who said: ``it is stupid to die for other people's interests, but fleeing is shameful.''

Everything revolves around the uncertainty over the Krajina's future status, as well as the talks on reopening communication lines and constant fear of Croatian attacks... Still Knin's inhabitants didn't really feel the war, except for a few shells that landed on the town. The town is leading a normal life; cafes and restaurants are open and most men are dressed in civilian clothing.

``There are prejudices about us,'' one man told VREME. He pointed to a group of young men at a nearby table. ``Who would say that those boys went through the worst of the fighting? These are essentially quiet people. They're Dalmatians who enjoy playing cards and bocci ball. They like fish, wine and family life. Before the war, we had one murder every ten years. Even now, boys only fight with their hands, without weapons. Considering the circumstances, the amount of violence is low. It's simply not in our tradition.''

St. Ante's Roman Catholic Church in the center of Knin hasn't been torn down, but it's roof has been burned. ``A bunch of idiots did that,'' locals say and stress that the fire brigade put the fire out immediately. They add that the St. Jakov Church in Kninsko Polje hasn't been touched. But Croats have moved out of the town en masse; there are only some 50 left. The ones that didn't leave when the war broke out were forced to go when the town was flooded by refugees from the Zadar area after the Croatian army attacked Serb villages in January of last year.

Exceptions have also been recorded. In nearby Topolje, a Croat took in a family of Serb refugees. They bullied him out of his house, but the whole village revolted and threw them out.

No One's People

The first feeling you get when you enter the Batnoga refugee camp near Slunj is disbelief that it exists. Unfortunately, you soon realize that what you see is true. Some 30,000 refugees have been living there for two months. They are Muslims from the Cazin region in western Bosnia. They found refuge in the Agrokomerc rabbit and chicken farm 10 kilometers from Velika Kladusa, which the Muslim 5th Corps captured, forcing them to flee. Each of the halls houses from 800 to 1000 people and they are so stuffy that they leave you breathless. The sudden drop in temperature and first snows found them in their summer clothes. At the most, there are two or three stoves in each of the halls. Many of the refugees don't have anything but blankets to shield them from the concrete floors; some don't even have blankets.

The cooking is done outside on improvised stoves---holes in the ground covered with tin sheets and lined with bricks. A nearby stream was used for laundry and bathing until it got too cold. ``There's almost more detergent than water in the stream now,'' says Jasmina Huremagic, a member of the coordination committee that runs the camp. Drinking water and food are trucked in by UNPROFOR. There's not enough of either. The bakeries in Vojnic and Glina are working at maximum capacity, but even that is not enough. ``The rations are at African levels,'' Huremagic says and adds that an average can't be estimated: ``When it comes, if it comes, we divide it up.''

A stand in front of a truck sells potatoes, grapes, honey... Although the prices are the same as in the Knin market, the truck owner hides from the video camera. Local ``vultures'' circle the camp, but luckily there aren't any of them because the Batnoga camp houses the poor. Motorized and wealthy refugees are in Turanj, near Karlovac, where chaos rules in the fields between the Serb and Croat lines: smuggling, fights, crime...

Velika Kladusa doctors Fatma Okanovic and Irfan Talakic don't think they can survive the winter in these conditions: ``there's a chicken pox epidemic among the children and we have nowhere to isolate the sick. They'll infect each other and we console ourselves that they'll be immune. Pregnant women and the severest cases are sent to Vojnic, Glina and Croatia. Our greatest problem is intestinal infections brought in from Kladusa. We have some experience with those infections, but it's hard to convince UNPROFOR doctors that diarrhea isn't a passing occurrence, but that this is salmonella poisoning. They've never seen it. We also have some cases of tuberculosis and an increasing number of allergies and lung diseases due to malnutrition, exhaustion and the cold. If we stay here another month, the elderly and children will die. The people in Kordun helped us a lot, UNPROFOR helped; we have some medicine, but we need analgetics, antibiotics, Bactrim, bandages, gauze...''

All of the individual refugee stories boil down to one: everyone is grateful to the Krajina people, everyone says UNPROFOR sided with the 5th Corps and everyone says they will return home only with Babo (Western Bosnia leader Fikret Abdic) at their head. Abdic still enjoys huge authority as their leader, to the point that three weeks ago they celebrated the anniversary of the founding of Western Bosnia. They even proclaimed total support to Babo in posters on their hall doors.

No one knows what will happen to these people. They were lead away by a man who made a mistaken political calculation. Behind them are other Muslims who forced them to run away; in front of them is Croatia, which they can't enter. The Serbs didn't manage to close their border and took them in; they're helping as much as they can but would prefer to see them off. The international community is amazingly ungenerous towards them probably because they don't fit into any political or diplomatic combination. And winter has arrived.

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