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December 15, 1995

KNIN, Croatia (AP) _ The guns are silent over most of what used to be Yugoslavia, and now 2 million displaced people face a grim game of musical houses.

Here, it is simple. Serbs fled Knin by the thousands, and they won’t be back. Croatian soldiers threw mattresses into the street and burned what they could not loot.

But Banja Luka, the rebel Serb stronghold across the Bosnian border, is jammed. The few Croats and Muslims still left were run out of town to make room for newcomers from Knin, among many others.

And in the rest of Bosnia, it is a desperate game of tragic complexities.

In essence, the wars in Bosnia and Croatia were about one ethnic group trying to evict others. Now, after the Dayton agreement, the idea is for everyone to find a safe place on the map _ and a roof over the head.

``The lucky ones can go back to their old houses,″ said Panos Moumtzis, a representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. ``But most people cannot.″

For one thing, borders have changed. Serbs control parts of Bosnia where they were once a minority. But Serbs were driven from border areas they had dominated in Croatia, including Knin.

Houses too numerous to count are now roofless hulks. Artillery shattered many; others were dynamited or torched by vengeful conquerors once their occupants fled to safer areas.

``In these regions, a house is part of the family, a living element,″ explained Ben Otim, a veteran U.N. refugee official. ``Burning a house is like killing a member of the family.″

Now, as peace begins to settle in, each of the 1 million displaced people within former Yugoslavia _ and about the same number scattered abroad _ has a different story.

Natasa Gataric, a Croat in Banja Luka, Bosnia, was well into her pregnancy when Serb refugees from Knin muscled into her house. She and her husband, Branko, went to Knin.

``At City Hall, they told us to take our pick,″ she said.

Ivica Jerkovic, 13, a Croat, came with his family from Zenica, Bosnia when tension with Muslims forced his family to flee.

Few other Croats want to come to Knin, a gray concrete city in the hills. Although it is often invoked as a historical symbol because it was the coronation site of 12th-century Croatian kings, it was settled in later centuries mostly by Serbs.

But Croats have filled other available houses elsewhere in the region.

``Sometimes Serbs sell their houses to Croats ... or make exchanges with Croats who leave Bosnia,″ said Matija Herman, at the town hall in Glina. ``Usually, these people end up disappointed.″

Local authorities may not recognize property deeds. Establishing ownership requires complex paperwork and often friends in court. Or intending occupants may find soldiers already permanently encamped.

When ownership remains in dispute, a nine-member commission made up of two Croats, two Serbs, two Muslims and three international jurists will be given authority to decide.

At least half the refugees waiting to go home are Bosnian Muslims scattered in grim camps, squatting in precarious circumstances or living far past their welcome with family or friends.

Most want to return, but not if their ethnic group has lost out to another. Even if the Dayton accord guarantees their safe return, few seem prepared to face the likely hostility.

Matija Podugovic has spent four years waiting to go home to Vukovar, in eastern Croatia, which Serbs shelled to rubble and then started to rebuild as their own city.

A tire salesman turned militia officer who fought to defend his hometown, he now spends empty days at a refugee center on the Croatian coast.

Serbs are to give back Eastern Slavonia within two years, but both ethnic groups can live there. In the first stages, one Croatian official said, Croats and Serbs can cohabit disputed houses.

``Let him live with a Serb,″ Podugovic said, spitting. ``His father was not killed. His son was not killed. There will be no life for them in Vukovar just as there is now no life for us. I swear it.″

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