Every war has its atrocities. Both sides claim them, and one of Croatia's is here in western Slavonia just under the Papuk mountains, where retreating Serbs left behind 43 Croatian bodies, the rubble of a 750-year-old church and not a house intact in the tiny town of Vocin.
Getting here even now is like driving through the valley of death. Fields lie untended, shattered homes uninhabited and scarcely a moving, living thing in sight in the other villages along the winding 14 miles from the larger town of Podraska Slatina.Serbs and Croats once lived in them as neighbors. Vocin, which has 1,548 inhabitants, two-thirds of them Serbs, is just beginning to put itself together again after a terrible two days last December.
The story comes from Stepan Brijacak, a grizzled 59-year-old retired teacher and pharmacist who was born here, fled from his Serbian neighbors in time and is back as head of the village council, mostly he said because there "is no one else" among the 60 or so people who have returned.
Most, like Brijacak, are Croats, but he says there are also 15 Serbs in three families who sheltered their Croat neighbors when other Serbs came after them. Serbs are welcome to return, he adds, but only if they left before what happened on Dec. 12-13.
"Everything was completely normal up until about two years ago," he recounted matter-of-factly in a tiny room of his damaged house, where he and his wife still live.
Then, he said, orders had come from Belgrade to the Serbs that only Serbian should be spoken.
The two languages are similar. But the pronunciation is somewhat different, and Croatian is written in the Latin alphabet and Serbian in the Cyrillic, reflecting the split in the 11th century when Croats went with the Roman Catholic Church and Serbs with the Orthodox Church in Constantinople.
"I had some very good friends and they told me about the instructions from Belgrade," Brijacak said. Then, he said, military preparations began, and his Serbian friends were ordered to keep silent.
"From then on, we Croats didn't know what was happening. We could see the preparations, but we had no idea of the intentions. Beginning in May 1991, about 12 military transports filled with weapons would come every other day from the Yugoslav army bases in Podraska Slatina and Nasica."
The local Serbs, he said, built underground bunkers and storage dumps in the wooded hills overlooking the town and filled them with "an incredible amount of weaponry."
"My concern now is that we have found very few of them," he said. "We don't know where the others are, but they know."
Only last week, he said, two Serbs were captured in the hills. On July 14 a land mine on a road injured seven woodsmen going to work, and on July 17 another blew the foot off a police officer on patrol.
On Aug. 2, 1991, he said, the local Serbs formed their own irregular military unit. Then local Serbs were ordered not to sell food to Croats or speak to them. After a week of this, he said, he left on Aug. 25. But about 150 Croats stayed or were kept hostage.
As Croatian forces approached in December, he said, the Serbian irregulars burned and blew up the town and left without a fight. On Dec. 15 the Croats retook the town, and Brijacak came back on Dec. 19. What the returning Croatians found were 43 bodies, more than half of them elderly women.
Accounts at the time reported that some of them were horribly mutilated. They also said that before the massacre, Belgrade radio and newspapers were reporting that the advancing Croatian forces had killed and mutilated 120 Serbians.
These reports apparently have never been verified, but they explain the atmosphere between Serbs and Croats that makes their enmity so horrible and hard to solve.
Vocin was also the scene of communal fighting in World War II. Before that war, Croats were in the majority; after the war Serbs were.
Brijacak flatly denies that it was outsiders who carried out the massacres. "Only local people took part," he said, and they have been identified.
Helping with the clearing work are 37 young volunteers, including six Americans and 13 Canadians under the direction of Nick Vidak, a 23-year-old from Toronto. All have paid their own way. Living in tents in the former park, they have been here for 10 days and will stay a month.
The Americans come from Croatian-American families, and all have been moved by what they have seen. Several wanted to come back, some perhaps for good.
"I felt the need to do more than watch the newscasts about the war," said 26-year-old Ana Struich, of San Jose, Calif.
"It's my first time here," said Lillian Zakarija, 19, of Chicago. "I wanted to help and there's only so much you can do in Chicago."
The one other casualty to be mentioned was the destruction of the graceful Gothic church, Mary, Mother of God of Vocin, first built in the 13th century, destroyed by the Turks in the 16th century and rebuilt in the 17th century.
Its arches were a rarity this far south in Europe. Only part of the tower and rubble remain. Vidak recounted that six or seven truckloads of ammunition had been stored in the church by the Serbs and deliberately blown up by the retreating irregulars. Stones were blown several hundred feet away.
As for Brijacak, "I was born here, spent my whole life here and plan to stay until I die."
Somewhere some of the Serbs who lived there may feel the same way. But can they live together?
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service