The Serbs'testing ground for ethnic cleansing

 

BALKAN JOURNEY:It was the worst conflict on European soil since the end of the second World War, with casualties estimated at up to 200,000. Today, Peter Murtaghreports from Kijevo in Croatia, where Serbian general Ratko Mladic tried out his and Radovan Karadzic's policy of ethnic cleansing

IN THE history of the wars that engulfed the Balkans in the 1990s, the small village of Kijevo has a special place in infamy. It was here that the policy that shaped the conflict in Croatia and Bosnia was first applied.

In Kijevo, two words, ciscenje terena, meaning cleansing the ground, were used by Serbian forces to describe what they were doing.

Now the Serbs did not invent ethnic cleansing but they practised it with an enthusiasm perhaps never before witnessed in such detail.

If you Google the phrase, you will soon be reading about the Third Punic War of 149BC. Most conflicts through history have involved a bloody mix of territory and ethnicity. But television, along with satellite mobile phones for speedy transmission, meant the world witnessed what was going on in Croatia and Bosnia in the early 1990s more or less as it happened. And the arrogance of the instigators - the Serbs - who thought what they were doing was perfectly okay, resulted in unusually close access for reporters.

Kijevo today is a village of just over 600 people in a valley on the southern side of the Dinara mountains that separate Croatia and Bosnia. It's about 50 miles inland from the coast at Split as the crow flies.

The village straddles the E71 road linking Knin and Split. Trucks flash through at terrifying speed but no one seems to mind much. Kijevo is a sleepy sort of place. The land is poor; the underlying rock, which breaks the surface almost everywhere, is limestone. Fields, such as they exist, have rubble and boulder walls and look bony and barren. It's all a bit like the Burren on an unusually hot, sunny day.

What happened in Kijevo from 1991 to 1995 was not so much bloody (though there was much of that) as brutal. Importantly, it was the shape of things to come.

Slightly beyond Kijevo to the northwest lies the town of Knin, which has a population of about 15,000. Before the war, Knin was some 70 per cent Serb in its ethnic make-up and became the capital of the Knin krajina, as the Serbian enclaves inside Croatia were known. Back down the E71 towards Kijevo and beyond, it was the same story: most of the people living in an area that extended into Croatia from Bosnia were Serbian.

Krajinacomes from the Serbo-Croat word kraj, meaning edge - the edge of Greater Serbia - and so the Serb policy evolved of embracing the Serbs on the edge, with the aim of pulling them into a new, expanded Serbia to be carved out of, first, Croatia, and then Bosnia, and married to the existing state of Serbia.

But for Serb plans, Kijevo was a fly in the ointment. It had the unusual distinction of being an ethnically Croat village inside a Serb-dominated area - which was itself surrounded by Croats. Kijevo was thus an enclave within an enclave.

On the edge of the village on top of a rock outcrop, there stands today an impressive new church, gleaming in the sun. In the graveyard, a man, his wife and their two young sons are looking at a grave, contemplating, remembering.

"The church you see here," explains Tihomir Kupanovac when eventually we get chatting, "they destroy this church! Just blow it up completely. And they smash the graves. You see they are all new. We rebuild them."

The "they" of which he speaks were the Bosnian Serb army under the command of Ratko Mladic, a Yugoslav army general formally in command of the Yugoslav army Knin Corps just up the road. This tiny place, Kijevo, which in the 1990s was 100 per cent Croat, was where Mladic tried out his and Radovan Karadzic's policy of ethnic cleansing.

"How they do it," Tihomir repeats my question back to me, "It's very simple. You come with tanks. If you stay here you are killed. You kill one, two, three, maybe four people and the others leave."

The others were the 1,000 or so Croats who lived in Kijevo. Most of the men had fled the village before the Serb army occupied it in October 1990, just before Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia the following June. Homes were looted and burned at will, the land laid waste.

One who did not leave was Pera Gojevic-Zrnic, the 67-year-old sister of Tihomir's father-in-law, Mioslavic. She and several other older women stayed and lived as best they could while the Serb forces used Kijevo as a kitchen and supply base.

One day in 1994, Pera went to get some bread and to speak to Kenyan soldiers with the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) which by then was trying - not entirely successfully - to shield civilians from the worst excesses of the war. She told the Unprofor soldiers that another woman from the village was missing.

Sitting now in the dappled shade of a cherry tree in Mioslavic's home, to which I and my travelling companion have been invited, Tihomir reads from a local account of what happened.

"The chetniks[Croat term for the Serbs] took her skin completely off her body from here [he points to his lower legs] to her head and took out her eyes. Torture? Yes! She was still alive. And put her in a tree after this. And then you can say 'What kind of people are these?' Not people. Animals. This was politics [ then]."

Tihomir speaks with passion but not overt anger. Perhaps too much time has passed. A total of just 18 people died in Kijevo - a tiny number compared with what was about to befall other parts of Croatia and eventually Bosnia.

Tihomir comes from Osijek in Slavonia, a part of eastern Croatia. His wife Dubravka is from Kijevo and likes to visit the family grave whenever she is back home. They have two boys, Matej and Marin, who play in the shade unaware, I hope, of the horrors their parents and granduncle are revealing.

An engineer, Tihomir is hugely proud of his country, and ambitious for it. He desperately wants Croatia to be a member of the European Union - for economic and cultural reasons. He is optimistic.

"The future I hope is giving us good possibilities," he says. "Everybody of us lost at least 10 years because of the war."

Kijevo today is at peace. The only disturbance comes from traffic. What happened here is remembered vividly by those touched by it. The rest of the world just whizzes by.

Ratko Mladic was indicted for war crimes and has been in hiding for some 13 years. The Serbian political leaders in Knin during the Serb occupation, Milan Martic, a former police inspector, and Milan Babic, a dentist, were also indicted. Babic hanged himself in March 2006 at a war crimes detention centre in The Hague while awaiting trial. Last June, Martic was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment.

Croatian forces liberated Knin, whose population is now 90 per cent Croat, on August 5th, 1995. Ivan Cermak, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, Croatian army officers involved in Operation Storm, were also indicted for war crimes - in substance for trying to ethnically cleanse Knin of its Serbs during the liberation offensive - and are currently on trial in The Hague.

Read Peter Murtagh's blog as he travels through the Balkans on a motorbike