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Two Women, Serb and Croat, Refuse to Be Enemies

December 8, 1995

VRGINMOST, Croatia (AP) _ When Serbs fled over the Bosnian border in August, they left behind Marta Ljubicic, 86 and feeble, with a rifle she couldn’t lift and hand grenades she couldn’t throw to fend off the advancing Croats.

Soon after, Mirka Lukenda, a Croat cleaning woman, was running for her life in the other direction after Serbs retreated to her hometown of Banja Luka. A Serb gunman had killed her husband nine months before.

Lukenda, with her mother and 30-year-old son, reported to the abandoned Serb house local officials assigned to her. She found Ljubicic, hungry, her eyes hollow and haunted, cowering in the filth-strewn basement.

The Serb family responsible for her had not wanted the extra baggage.

``She was so sweet,″ Lukenda says, ``we took her in as one of our family.″ Her mother, 77-year-old Zorka Blazan, beams accord and fondles the older woman’s hands as she would a sister’s.

This story is rare in what was called Krajina, a strip of Croatia that ethnic Serbs seized as an autonomous state in 1991, after Croatia declared independence, and held until August.

U.N. officials say 5,000 elderly Serbs who remained in Krajina after the frantic evacuation now live alone. Full of revenge, returning Croats have burned abandoned Serb houses and harassed and sometimes terrorized Serbs who stayed behind. The United Nations has found more than 120 Serbs slaughtered and buried in anonymous graves.

But the story of the old lady and the widow reveals the humanity that still glimmers among brutality as the pieces of the former Yugoslavia fall back to earth.

``We are religious, and we are human,″ explains a warm-eyed Red Cross worker, a Croat who also fled Banja Luka. She calls herself only Vera, for fear the Serbs might persecute relatives in Bosnia.

``If you say that we are helping the Serbs who stayed, they will not believe it,″ she says. In fact, Vera and others regularly feed 444 Serbs confined to isolated homes in this town.

Before the war, when Serbs, Croats and Muslims lived in harmony in Banja Luka, Vera was a bookkeeper. She lost her job in 1992. Since then, Serbs have burned her house, killed many of her friends and beaten her husband.

``After the Serbs came from Croatia,″ she says, ``they told us to leave within five days, or they could not guarantee our lives.″ She fled across the Sava River with her husband and three children.

Marta Ljubicic had grown up in this rich farm district south of Zagreb, but details of her early life seem lost to her.

In the pre-war days, Ljubicic lived alone in a small, ramshackle house. She had no children, and she says other relatives abandoned her when her meager fortune dwindled away.

After 1991, when Croatian Serbs took control, a Serb family was allowed to demolish her old house and build a new one if the family agreed to care for her. The family gave her a room and sparse meals but little else.

``I don’t know why they left me,″ Ljubicic says, weeping as the memories return. She squeezes Zorka Blazan’s hand and smiles at Mirka Lukenda.

Similar acts of kindness defy the generalities still used to try to explain a multifaceted ethnic war, rooted in history but swollen by grand political goals and petty personal greed.

It is enough to drive down Gacese Road, in nearby Glina, where Croats are reclaiming homes they had to leave or moving into those abandoned by fleeing Serbs.

``No one bothers us, or others like us,″ says Djordje Pjevac, a Serb retiree who hid in his backyard when local authorities tried to take all Serbs with them on their August evacuation.

``If we had stolen from Croats or mistreated them, we would have fled, too,″ he says. ``But it is time to start again.″

Starting over was an priority for Mirka Lukenda.

When her husband was shot in Banja Luka, she made a point not to find out who did it. ``I did not want blood on my son’s hands,″ she explains.

When she found Ljubicic in her basement, bent and shrunken and shrouded in black, looking closer to 100 than 86, she did not hesitate.

``She was so nice that it was easy,″ Lukenda says. ``But, in any case, what else would we do? Now she is our family, one of us. Wherever we may go, she will go with us.″

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