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Despite War’s Hatreds, Croatian Women’s Club Open to All

October 16, 1995

PAKRAC, Croatia (AP) _ They met more than two years ago, pushing wheelbarrows of rubble and preparing bricks to rebuild this front-line town. The 10 women became friends, sharing the sorrows of war over coffee and cookies.

Today, they run a laundry for anyone with dirty clothes _ no ethnic questions asked.

It’s not that these women have forgotten or forgiven those who killed their loved ones, divided their families, and destroyed or occupied their homes. They’ve simply tried to put aside the fighting that tore apart former Yugoslavia and create a tiny oasis of sanity at their Women’s Club of Pakrac.

``We are open to everyone,″ said Stefanija Knezek, 49, taking a break from loading and unloading the washing machine. ``We don’t ask who is Serb or Croat. We don’t want to get involved in politics.″

Pakrac, 60 miles southeast of Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, has been the scene of heated warfare and of determined attempts at peace-building across ethnic lines, spearheaded mainly by women.

``If you ask who’s got the power to start any kind of communications between the two conflicting sides, it’s definitely the women’s groups in the community,″ said Vanya Nikolic, coordinator of the Pakrac Volunteer Project, which is trying to re-establish links between Croats and Serbs.

``They are mothers, they are wives, and they want their children to live in a peaceful situation,″ she said.

Before the war, this picturesque Croatian town had a rich ethnic and cultural mix _ 42 percent Serb, 37 percent Croat, the rest Italians, Hungarians and Czechs, she said.

But Pakrac was divided after intense fighting in 1991, the north remaining part of Croatia, the south under control of Croatian Serbs.

There was no official contact between the two sides, but women’s organizations and peace groups dominated by women managed to maintain communication using electronic mail delivered by computer.

Serbs who remained in the Croatian half of town worked with their Croat neighbors to rebuild damaged homes and public buildings. They were helped by more than 200 foreigners from 19 countries working with the Pakrac Volunteer Project.

The volunteers started language classes, sports contests, children’s activities and a weekly radio show. They also helped the women start their club, which meets in a rebuilt, gray-tiled room adjoining the laundry of a former secondary school.

On the Serb side of town, women from the Anti-War Committee of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, started similar projects for reconciliation, encouraging women and children to talk about their anger, to look to the future.

``I talked about tolerance, about differences among people, and told them to accept people with differences,″ said Yelena Santic, one of former Yugoslavia’s leading ballerinas, who heads the committee’s project in Pakrac.

Volunteers from both sides met in Hungary last April to discuss how they could promote cross-country links.

But only a few weeks later, on May 1, the Croatian army launched an offensive, regaining control of the entire town and a swath of Serb-held land in the western Slavonia region.

Between 10,000 and 14,000 Serbs fled, said Vesna Kolaric-Kisur, director of the Committee for Human Rights in Zagreb who has tried to help some of the 1,500 Serbs who stayed, mainly women and old people.

``They’re still scared,″ she said, explaining how she and other volunteers help the Serbs with documents, problems of rebuilding homes, disputes over cattle and visits to imprisoned relatives.

Slobodavka Uzur, a Serb whose husband is in jail under investigation for his war activities, said she would like to go back to her home in nearby Lipic, ``but I don’t think it will be possible to live with Croats.″

``I know a lot of people from the other (Croat) side,″ she said as she waited in line at the center. ``Some don’t want to say hello. Some don’t want to look at me. But some do talk to me.″

The Center for Women War Victims in Zagreb has started counseling Serb and Croat women and plans to form groups so women can deal with their fear, anger, prejudice and hatred. The center’s goal is for groups to work together across ethnic lines.

The Pakrac Women’s Group will be involved.

While most of its members are Croats, at least one, Olga Kovacevic, was married to a Serb. In former Yugoslavia, there were many mixed marriages and mixed parentage is common.

Like many on the Croat side, Kovacevic and the other women accept the Serbs who stayed here as neighbors. But they won’t forgive the Serbs who fled in 1991 and then shelled the town.

``Two generations must come before everything can be forgiven,″ Knezek said, then hurried into the next room to check on the laundry.

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