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Last Updated: Thursday, 23 September, 2004, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Serb struggles for Croatian home
By Marko Kovac
Zagreb, Croatia

A construction worker machine-drills his way through a cement wall in what was once a four-star restaurant in central Croatia.

Renovation is underway at Petar Kunic's grill house, on the main road from the Adriatic tourist town of Split.

"I have a dream of having the best restaurant on the road to the coast," says Mr Kunic, waving detailed architect's plans.

Petar Kunic's restaurant/tractor
Kunic returned to Croatia dreaming of rebuilding a family business
But fantasies about a visit by picky Michelin reviewers are not uppermost in the mind of this 53-year-old Serb returnee to Croatia.

Visionary plans are quickly set aside as he tells of his struggle to forge a new start.

"I fear for my life because of anti-Serb discrimination in Croatia on a local level," he says, expressing fears that ethnic hatred still runs deep in this ex-Yugoslav republic ravaged by a decade of war in the 1990s.

Mr Kunic fled his birthplace - a house famed for gastronomy - in 1995 as the Croatian army reclaimed territory which had been under Serb paramilitary occupation for a number of years.

He settled in neighbouring Bosnia because of the ethnic conflict.

Nine years after he fled, it was memories of the smell of his mother's cooking that prompted his return.

Mr Kunic set off in his old Volkswagen Golf for the village of Zagorje, an hour's drive from the capital Zagreb. He fought a long legal battle with Croats who had occupied his family's restaurant "K Svajceru" while he was in Bosnia.

They always say I was the guy who evicted a Croat
Petar Kunic

Dismayed by his country's slow and inefficient judicial system, he filed a lawsuit at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

International pressure prompted the pro-European centre-right government to take action and evict the Croatian family from his restaurant.

The story drew much media attention and fuelled protests from nationalist veteran groups.

Mr Kunic's return to Croatia had only made things worse for him.

"I'm banned from my village doctor," he says, angrily showing official documents that say he should look for treatment elsewhere.

"My Croatian doctor suddenly turned hostile when I showed her x-rays I took with my Serbian doctor. I thought the quarrel would calm down, but a couple of days later I was issued a paper that said it was impossible for me to get help in the local hospital."

Money trouble

Mr Kunic says the discrimination goes deeper: "Everywhere I go, people recognise me and there's some sort of trouble. In courts, institutions... everywhere.

"They always say that I was the guy who evicted a Croat."

Petar Kunic outside his restaurant
Kunic claims he has been denied medical treatment and bank loans
Even in private banks Mr Kunic has faced hostility. He says he has been refused three different loan requests, although many Croats in his region had no trouble getting money.

Problems like this are clearly deterring Serb refugees from returning to Croatia. In a recently published poll, 60% of Serbs who fled the country said they never wanted to return.

Only 13% are willing to come back, but only if their basic human rights are guaranteed.

A Puls agency survey painted an even grimmer picture, showing 63% of Croats think the Serb return is not a good thing. The Serb population in Croatia is now only a third of the 300,000 it was before the war - and unlikely to grow.

Even the loudest campaigner for the return of the Serbs, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), has admitted that most Serbs who fled Croatia will probably never go back.

Nevertheless, the OSCE head in Croatia, Peter Semneby, has recently urged the government to meet conditions for sustainable return.

"There's still a potential for return and everybody should have the right to it," he said.

Dream fades

The Croatian government is driven by the ambition of becoming the new darling of Brussels, but Petar Kunic is not very impressed by its promises to refugees.

Still a young democracy, Croatia was given European Union candidate status only this year and wants to be ready for membership by 2007.

The return of refugees is one of the main preconditions.

"I thought things would change after the centre-right government came to power last November. But everything is still the same, Serbs face huge problems," Mr Kunic says.

With no loan and a lawsuit pending from the Croatian family he had evicted, he now struggles to finance his restaurant.

The dream of his gastronomic Mecca seems to be fading, along with hopes of a larger Serb return to Croatia.




SEE ALSO:
Roma return to Serbian neglect
13 Jan 04  |  Europe
Eating in two countries at once
27 Jun 03  |  Europe
Country profile: Croatia
20 Jul 04  |  Country profiles


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