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Croatians in U.S. Despair Over War

November 27, 1991

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ In America’s oldest Croatian parish, the civil war in Yugoslavia has churned up a deep sense of betrayal over the U.S. government’s refusal to back Croatia’s drive for independence.

″I am bleeding inside,″ said Zeljko Jergan, who immigrated in 1986. ″It’s absolutely terrible. I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I cannot work. Nobody wants to help us.

″What we ask is just our freedom, our independence, nothing else.″

The Rev. Grgo Sikiric, pastor of St. Nicholas Roman Catholic Church, said the estimated 2 million Croats and their descendants in the United States have few options for aiding their brethren, and that only deepens their anxiety.

Aside from returning to fight, a desperate resort already taken by several hundred young men, Croatian-American groups have concentrated on sending relief in the form of food, clothing and medicines.

″They need everything. They lost everything,″ Sikiric said Tuesday.

Community leaders also are active in pressing the United Nations and governments around the world to intervene to halt the fighting, which erupted in the weeks after Croatia declared its independence on June 25.

The United States and the 12-nation European Community have resisted calls to recognize Croatian independence.

More than 4,000 people have been killed as the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army pushes into Serb-populated regions of Croatia, bombarding the eastern cities of Vukovar and Osijek and besieging the medieval Adriatic port of Dubrovnik.

Several emigre groups, including the Croatian Fraternal Union, are planning a series of rallies Dec. 7 to call attention to the embattled republic.

Demonstrations are planned in Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and other cities with large Croatian populations, said union president Bernard Lukepich.

In western Pennsylvania, where Slavs flocked to jobs in steel mills and coal mines in the last century, the overwhelming sentiment is one of frustration, bordering on despair. Many Croatian-Americans feel the world has turned its back on their ancestral home.

″This is for me an enigma,″ said Sikiric, whose church was founded in 1894. ″This is fighting between David and Goliath, between lion and lamb.″

Sikiric, who immigrated in 1975, said the civil war is different than other wars in Yugoslavia’s 73-year history. Serb forces are driving Croats out of their home regions in a bid to quash the secessionist movement, he said.

″This is something that never happened in our history,″ he said. ″Through our village came the German army, the Italian army, the Serbian army, the communist army. No one forced us to leave our village.″

The war has made it difficult for many Croatian-Americans to reach relatives in Yugoslavia. Telephone lines are undependable and the mails are slow.

Jergan said he tried to go home this summer, but was stuck in Austria for most of his journey. He managed to cross the border and spent three days in Yugoslavia, seeing his family on only one day.

″I had to leave in middle of dinner because I was in danger,″ he said, his voice breaking with emotion. ″It’s really difficult when you come to your own country, to your own house and you have to leave in the middle of dinner.″

Edward Rudar, an officer of the Croatian Fraternal Union who helped load relief supplies Tuesday, said the actions of the U.S. government and President Bush are not going unnoticed.

″There’s 2 million Croatian voters in this country,″ he said. ″I sent a card to Bush yesterday telling him that.″

Croatian-Americans are kept informed of war developments through a network that monitors shortwave radio broadcasts and other dispatches.

The reports are compiled, translated for those who don’t speak Croatian, and then distributed through churches and other ethnic groups, said Michael Vezilich, a Slavic languages instructor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Many Americans of Croatian descent are several generations removed from their homeland. That makes them better able to deal with the war than newer immigrants, said Carol Cubelic, whose grandparents came to the Pittsburgh area near the turn of the century.

″For those that are more recent, I think that the emotion and the anguish is much more acute,″ she said. ″Your thoughts are: Are they alive at this point? Do they have shelter? Do they have food? Winter’s coming.″

The feelings of those whose families have been in the United States longer are different but no less strong.

″It’s a mixture of many, many emotions. You think in terms of your ancestors ... you think back to the things you were born to,″ Mrs. Cubelic said.

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