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Last Updated: Monday, 1 November, 2004, 17:36 GMT
Croatia struggles for post-war harmony
By Marko Kovac
Beli Manastir, Croatia

"It is noon. You're listening to Radio Beli Manastir!" The presenter struggles to lift the depression hanging over the rain-drenched empty streets of Beli Manastir in eastern Croatia.

Street scene, Beli Manastir
Economic gloom is shared by Croats and Serbs alike
In the central square a few mothers are taking their children home from school.

Another quiet day is drawing to a close for the local shops.

People have never spent less in Baranja, now one of Croatia's poorest regions, where unemployment rarely falls below 50%.

Beli Manastir still bears the scars of the ethnic conflict which pitted Croats against Serbs in the 1990s war that tore Yugoslavia apart.

Almost 10 years on, there is still little sign of reconciliation between the two equally represented ethnic groups.

Parallel lives

Cafes - the only places bustling with life - show just how deep the divide remains.

There is a clear distinction between Croat and Serb cafes - you can identify them by the radio station they are playing.

The town has only 10,000 inhabitants, yet it boasts two local radio stations - transmitting very different programmes.

Radio Beli Manastir is one of only a couple of Serb-run stations in Croatia. Its tiny offices resemble a wartime bunker. They are dusty, the equipment is outdated and the collection of music is mostly on old LPs and cassettes.

The technician doesn't react when a song finishes and, having worked for years on radio myself, I am uneasy during the 10 seconds of silence that follows as he slowly changes the CD. It seems the town's depression has invaded the airwaves as well.

The station plays almost exclusively Serbian folk music, as if it is not even trying to attract a Croat audience. I begin to wonder whether the local media are helping to maintain hostility between Croats and Serbs.

The radio's cult anchorman Milutin Kotrljanovic, previously a police inspector, assures me that their programme is multicultural.

"My show gives everyone a chance to speak out - a Croat or a Serb, a politician, or just ordinary citizens. We talk about living together and solving problems. Although I myself am Serbian, I think I have successfully engaged Croatian homes." Not an easy task.

Expulsion

During the war, Baranja was occupied by the rebel Serb minority and Croats were driven out.

Milutin Kotrljanovic, Serb radio presenter
Kotrljanovic says he is bridging the ethnic divide
The painful memories of columns of women and children leaving their homes are still vivid in the minds of many.

The Croats started moving back during the 1996 reintegration initiative conducted under UN supervision.

For Croats, it is not easy to forget that it was their Serb neighbours who made them leave. Serbian folk songs about lost love find little fertile ground among the Croats. Not a single Croat phoned in while I was at Radio Beli Manastir.

Mr Kotrljanovic thinks he can achieve the goal he has set for himself - of bridging the ethnic divide.

"Until a short time ago, there were incidents every day. Croatian and Serbian children went to different classes. There was abuse. Things have now changed, because of the harsh poverty and the role of media like ours."

His words are supported by his good friend Marko Posavec, a Croat, who joins us for coffee.

He is a member of the ruling centre-right party HDZ - formerly the bastion of the late nationalist president Franjo Tudjman.

Reconciliation

Unlike many of his colleagues in the HDZ, Croatia's biggest party, he avoids talk of hate.

Radio Baranja, Beli Manastir
Radio Baranja also claims to embrace multiculturalism
"The situation is calming down. It is important to talk to people and let them know that they won't survive if they continue to fight each other", says Mr Posavec.

But it seems it will be some time before this message is adopted more broadly.

Many ordinary Croats remain defiant.

"I don't listen to Radio Beli Manastir because it is Serbian. I hate Serbs. They made us leave our homes during the war. I will sell to them, but nothing more than that," says Ruzica, a middle-aged butcher, when I ask about her choice of music.

Pausing for a drink at a nearby kiosk, Ana, a young saleswoman, also speaks of Radio Beli Manastir with disdain. "Why should I listen to them, when there's a Croatian station in town?"

Rivalry

Just across the street stands a late 1980s glass building housing the town's other radio station - Croatian-run Radio Baranja.

Beli Manastir
Depression is all too prevalent - but at least there is no fighting
Its owner Zlata Marsic is proud of Baranja's modern offices, touch-screen computer technology and other hi-tech broadcasting equipment.

But smiles turn to frowns when I mention Radio Beli Manastir. She refers to them as "those Serbs who made me leave my hometown during the war".

The war is a sore point - she does not want to talk history, so I'm diverted towards the station's star presenter Sasa Lilovic.

As with the Serbian rival, multiculturalism is his buzzword as well. And yet - the only music I hear played is Croatian.

"We're a station for everyone and everyone is welcome, Croats or Serbs," says Mr Lilovic. But as I listened to the Baranja broadcast, not a single Serb phoned in. The divide remains too deep.

The radio presenters sound like lone voices calling for ethnic unity. Not many people are listening to their message.

The joint struggle against poverty might be forcing the people of Beli Manastir to push memories of war into the background - but for now that is as far as it goes.




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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