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Europe Thursday, 5 August, 1999, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Croatia's legacy of war
Kosa is now one of the few Serbs left in Benkovac in the Krajina
By Hugh Levinson

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A tree shades Kosa as she sits by the roadside, topping and tailing a pile of onions. Around her the houses of her former neighbours lie in ruins. She holds up her arms, showing where they were broken by a gang of paramilitary thugs.

Kosa is one of the few Serbs - all of them elderly - still living in Benkovac, once a Serbian majority town. It's a community ravaged by war, where the residents are only just starting to rebuild their lives after nearly a decade of conflict.

Benkovac is in the heart of the Krajina, a majority-Serb region within Croatia, which declared its independence from Zagreb and ruled itself between 1991 and 1995. During that period, Croats living in the Krajina were abused, killed, expelled or fled. Then in 1995, the Croatian Army retook the Krajina in a surprise attack called Operation Storm. According to the UNHCR, up to 200,000 Serbs fled to Serbia and Bosnia. This campaign is still often cited by Serbia as a great historical wrong against its people which too often goes unrecognised.

Unwelcome return

Now, under heavy pressure from the West, the Croatian government has agreed to help those Serbian refugees return. But when they do, many are finding only threats and poverty. We met Sofia and five of her relatives, a Serb family who came back to Benkovac last year and rebuilt their home. Before they could move in, unknown attackers destroyed it with a bomb.

Nenad has been reduced to living in a garage, without his pension
Nenad, a Serb, and his wife came back to their home in Benkovac to find it occupied by a young man. They have been living in a garage since last year, without running water or electricity. Bureaucratic delays have stopped Nenad from claiming his pension. And the man living in his house has said he will not give it up until authorised by the local authority - which so far has returned only a handful of Serbian houses.

Many are already occupied by another group of refugees - ethnic Croats from Bosnia. Janja, her family and her sister's family, escaped from Bosnia in 1993 after attacks by Muslim forces. They moved into a house in Benkovac which was then lying empty. They recently met the Serb couple who own the house and promised to give it back - as long as Janja and her family can find somewhere else to go.

Bitter memories

The townspeople seem still stunned by the legacy of the war, unable to comprehend what they went through so recently. "I don't know why all this happened," says Svetlana, a young Croatian woman. She and her family spent five years living as refugees in a nearby seaside town. When they returned, they found their farmhouse totally destroyed. "Today we drink coffee together, tomorrow you try and shoot me. I can't understand, I'm sorry," she says.

The landscape is still dotted with ruined houses
There are some signs of hope amid the ruins and hatreds. Sofia and her family, Serbs returning to their home town, have received promises of protection from a local strongman, a former Croatian paramilitary called Denis Kapovic. "If this country is to move forward, it has to forget," he says. And an organisation called Stopenade (Steps of Hope) is planning to create a women's centre, bringing together Serbs and Croats. Zelma Katunaric of Stopenade says women are the best hope for reconciliation in Benkovac. "A woman has to go towards the future, for her children and for her husband, or she can lose everything."

Also in this edition of Crossing Continents: sampling the delights of skinny-dipping in the Adriatic and an exclusive investigation into the scandal that's convulsing the nation - a murky tale of spies, surveillance and soccer.

Kosa Radic, Krajina, Croatia, July 1999
"I was afraid for my life..."
Svetlana, Croatian, Krajina, July 1999
"I can't forget those years..."
I love Dinamo, by Pips, Cbips &Videoclips, July 1999
"I Love Dinamo" ....
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