by Damir PILIC
Our visit to Korenica had a very strange beginning, almost like a frame from a movie by David Lynch. Therefore, we are sitting in the city hall, in front of deputy mayor Mile Grbac and we are asking him to comment on the claims from an article.
"What article?" asks the deputy mayor.
"The one from the papers," we explain, "from Novi List. The article that was later reprinted by Slobodna Dalmacija. In that article, the Association of Croats from Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croat settlers in Korenica demands from your mayor Cancar to fire you because you are advising Serb returnees to break into the houses of Croat settlers."
"Really?" the deputy mayor is surprised, explaining that newspapers arrive one day late to Korenica.
"Do you have a copy of that article handy?" asks the deputy mayor. We pass him a copy, he reads it and says "no comment".
"What do you mean?" we ask. "You've been criticized?"
"That's it. I have nothing to say."
Fine, we say inwardly, and try a different tack. We ask him how many people there are in Korenica and how many in the whole municipality of Plitvice lakes.
"I don't' know," says deputy mayor Grbac.
"What do you mean? You don't know how many people there are in Korenica, or how many there are in the whole municipality?"
"Could you at least give us an estimate, an approximate figure," we insist," a thousand, five, six...?"
"I couldn't tell you, even if you threatened to kill me," shrugs the deputy mayor. "The number of returns and departures oscillates and we shall hopefully have precise data next year."
That is how the story about Korenica, the center of the municipality of Plitvice lakes started. In 1991 the whole municipality, including 45 settlements and a part of the national park, had 11,393 inhabitants, 75 percent of them ethnic Serbs. In 1991 Korenica was ethnically even more homogeneous: there were 1,716 inhabitants in the town, more than 90 percent of whom were Serbs. Today Korenica has more inhabitants than in 1991, and the ethnic composition of the population is the opposite of that from 1991: besides 850-900 Serb returnees there are about 400 families of Croat settlers (150 from Croatia and 250 from Bosnia-Hercegovina), with all together 1500 members. Symbolically, the change was sealed when after the operation "Storm" Vladimir Nazor [Croatian writer, fought with Communist Partisans in WWII] street was renamed Mile Budak [Croatian pro-fascist official and writer; involved in genocide against Serbs, Jews and Roma during WWII] street.
"There are about 400 'occupied' houses in the municipality," says mayor Mile Cancar, "but you should put that 'occupied' between quotation marks, because these 'internationals' (that's how I refer to them) use that term. All the current occupants have entered the houses in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Croatia and if these laws are not valid any more, then that is a different issue. I know that private property is sacred, but the Ministry for Reconstruction and Development has twice organized a tender and these people have participated in it. Where are they supposed to go now? Let the 'internationals' build houses for everyone, and then everyone will be happy. There is enough space. Waterworks in Korenica can supply 15,000 people, and there are less than 2,000 of us here. In Lika, there is enough space for 60,000 inhabitants, you can see that this region is deserted. The issue is that I cannot sign a single eviction order, and I believe that my deputy hasn't signed any either. We do not even have a commission for that. Local authorities are forced to evict people, and local authorities did not expel anyone, nor did they invite anyone [to settle], so that it won't evict anyone either. Let the gentlemen who invited the settlers now evict them." The Association of Croats from Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croat settlers in Korenica in its letter also attacked the non-governmental organization HOMO and its president Mirjana Galo, accusing her of "pro-Serb policy' and "biased work that only increases inter-ethnic tensions in Korenica". "If there are tragic consequences," states the letter of Croat settlers, "HOMO and Mirjana Galo will be responsible for that."
Besides Nazlic, a policeman from Pula, now stationed in Korenica, is also mentioned in that context. He has moved into a Serb owned house, opened a pizzeria on the first floor, a video-rental store on the second floor, while the real owner of the house has been living in rented accommodations in Korenica for more than two years and cannot return to his own home. In case the policeman is forced to move out of the house, he has threatened to "blow it up". The example of Anto Trgovcic, the priest in nearby Udbina, demonstrates that certain parts of the [Catholic] Church among Croats, perfectly fit into such an environment: Fr. Anto, originally from Bosnia-Hercegovina, has taken a whole house in Udbina and converted it into an improvised church with a belfry in the yard. In HOMO they tell us that he threatened, if forced to leave the house, to "set it on fire and run Mirjana Galo down in [his] car". "These people are not paying for a single commercial space they have occupied. Neither to the owners nor to the municipality," claims Nenad Ninic, an activist of the organization HOMO. "This is a paradise for profiteers from all over Croatia; the national park is nearby, with its tourists and profits."
Activist of the organization HOMO cite the case of 78-year-old grandmother Stana as evidence that incidents in Korenica are not inter-ethnic but caused by profiteers: this elderly woman is forced to live in a shack, since a Serb has moved into her house and would not let her in. Or, as they say in HOMO, "a Serb whose brother-in-law is a professional member of the Croatian Army."
And the Funduk family still cannot enter their house, although they have been in Korenica since September 1998.
"My eye is better now," says Mile, "I just have to have it checked again tomorrow. What can I say? There is a gang here, this is their turf. They are war profiteers, serious profiteers, because no real soldier, regardless of whether he is a Serb or Croat, would do what they do. Before the war, I had three houses here, and now I have nowhere to stay. There are ten of us in my family and all of them would come back, but where? The three of us can hardly fit in here. This house has five masters and when all of them show up to pick up the rent, we'll be... How come that Nazlic does not think of us sometimes?"
"It's been like this for ten years, only evil," cried grandmother Dara. "If only we were in our own home. If you only knew what Nazlic has stolen from that house, God..."
"Let them keep the house," Mile tries to encourage her, "as long as our grandchildren are healthy."
Drago Bozic, a refugee from Kakanj [in central Bosnia-Hercegovina] is a representative and a spokesperson for the Croats from Bosnia-Hercegovina settled in Korenica.
We ask him to comment the beating in the café from a few days before.
"I haven't heard about that case, but tensions will definitely increase with the returns, and the gentlemen should pay attention to that. I am afraid that the tensions will take a chaotic turn and then anything can happen." "There has been something wild in the air during the last month," a Croat from Korenica, an anonymous guest of the café "Panda" confirms Bozic's story. "I do not know what will happen. Not everything can be done by force; it is too early for brotherhood."
We mention minister Picula and his agreement with the Prime Minister of the Republic of Srpska Dodik regarding the return of refugees.
"In that case, let Picula go live in Banja Luka," says our colocutor, "and let him say there he is a Croat. The state is not being fair in this case."
"I don't know," he adds a moment later, "it wasn't like this before. All of this reminds me of 1989."