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Ethnic Fighting In Croatia Creating Refugee Problem

July 12, 1991

OSIJEK, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Pillaged, plundered and torched, the tiny village of Celije is no more.

But its 160 inhabitants escaped with their lives, fleeing the violence that has erupted between Croats and ethnic Serbs who live side by side in Croatia.

The Croatian inhabitants say ethnic Serbs attacked their village with mortars on Sunday. The terrorized Croatians fled in a convoy of cars and trucks to Osijet, the nearest city, 12 miles to the north.

Since the attack, their homes have been looted and their livestock killed or stolen. The only resident who dared to venture back is now missing.

This journalist saw the village still burning Tuesday.

Celije’s former residents are among a growing number of Croats, Serbs, and other minorities caught up in ethnic violence that surged after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25.

About 600,000 of Croatia’s 5 million people are ethnic Serbs, and the republic has long been a hotbed of ethnic animosity.

Some 8,000 Serbs and Croats have abandoned villages in northeastern Croatia, said Marco Dukic, director of the Red Cross refugee center in Osijek, where he says 900 people have fled.

The Croats say they are fleeing Serbian ″terrorists.″ Ethnic Serbs in Croatia say they are returning over the Danube river to Serbia because they no longer feel safe from Croatian forces.

Celije had the misfortune of being situated in the midst of four Serb- inhabited villages.

Serbian separatists considered Celije a threat because its population is mostly Croat, said Antonio Komeli, a 43-year-old farmer and village leader who is being sheltered in Red Cross dormitory.

Last week, Komeli said, a Serbian paramilitary fighter visited the village and told the population to leave immediately or face destruction.

″We thought they were only threatening,″ he said. ″We didn’t believe they could carry it through.″

But they did.

Wrenched from their old lives, the villagers have been thrust into an uncertain future.

″What am I going to do in a city? I have never lived in a city,″ said one village woman, who was crying. She appeared to be in her 70s. ″I only need a piece of land to grow crops on.″

She and others refused to give their full names, fearing retribution.

Serb refugees from Croatia who had fled to Kula, 80 miles northwest of Belgrade in Communist Serbia, also had bitter stories to tell.

″We were attacked and beaten every day by Croats,″ said one Serbian woman, Mila, a 30-year-old mother of two. ″Our men only had hunting rifles and pistols to defend our village and sent us here because they feared for our safety.

″Croatian police and vigilantes raid our villages, they burn Serbian homes, they arrest and beat people,″ Mila said.

″We’d be happy to go home right now,″ she said, tears streaming down her cheeks. ″But I am afraid we will be here for quite a while.″

She said Serbian children were mistreated in schools, and that her daughter was beaten by Croatians and had her nose broken. Her 8-year-old daughter, her nose bandaged, clutched her skirt.

In Osijek, meanwhile, the Red Cross said it was treating all sides equally in providing shelter and food.

″Even though it is my profession, I cannot stay calm. It moves me when I see them,″ said the Red Cross spokesman, Dukic.

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