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Croats Flee Serbia Rather Than Live in Terror

February 4, 1992

NOVI SLANKAMEN, Yugoslavia (AP) _ Eduard Spanovic, the Roman Catholic priest in this predominantly Croat village, fought tears as he cleared rubble and glass from his living room floor.

On the night of Jan. 27, the Serbian Orthodox feast of St. Sava, a mob throwing stones shattered windows of the house, next to the Catholic church. Until then, both buildings survived 150 years of Balkan turbulence unscathed.

″I would have preferred these stones to have hit my head instead of the windows. Then nobody would have known, and I would have suffered through it alone,″ the 30-year-old priest said.

This village of 3,000, in Serbia’s ethnically mixed northern province of Vojvodina, was once peaceful and prosperous, famed for its all-night tambourine folk music.

Now, many villagers, 70 percent of them Croatians, live in terror.

Life in the village dies at dusk. House gates are locked, doorbells go unanswered, all is dark.

″The worst started about three weeks ago,″ Spanovic said. ″Serbian refugees from Virovitica came here to resettle. They were told that 800 empty Croatian houses were ready for them.″

About 1,000 Croats have already fled Novi Slankamen, according to Bela Tonkovic, president of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina, the party of ethnic Croats in Serbia.

″The policy is to force all Croats to flee Vojvodina and to resettle Serbs from Croatia in their place. People have been threatened and beaten up and all that has been done under the auspices of Serbian authorities,″ Tonkovic said.

Serbian officials strongly dispute that. President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia has said he knows of no case of a Croat forced to leave Serbia.

Belgrade news media report at least 12,000 Serbs have been resettled in captured eastern Croatia, many in Croat homes left intact after the inhabitants fled.

Ilija Sasic, a Serb in the self-proclaimed government of a captured enclave in eastern Croatia, said settlement of Serbs in Croat homes is strictly temporary.

Spanovic said the arriving Serbs either did not know or did not want to say who promised them empty homes in his village.

″But some of them came here with the addresses ready,″ he said.

″If they had some addresses, they got them from Croats from Slankamen who wanted to exchange their properties with the properties of Serbs who fled from central Croatia,″ Sasic said in an interview in Belgrade.

Some Serbs left peacefully, cursing Serbian authorities after discovering their allotted homes were still occupied.

Others, using axes, ″forcibly broke into empty houses or warned the people they found in the houses to move or ‘We will kill you,’ ″ Spanovic said.

Local Serbs have remained silent. ″It might be fear. Our Serbs do not participate in these appalling things. Some of them are perhaps under the influence of extremists,″ the priest said.

Remaining Croats are afraid. The priest said there was not a single Croatian family he felt he could ask to talk to reporters.

Tonkovic said, ″Police are doing nothing. Nobody has been found and charged for all these crimes.″

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