by Dragana MATOVIC
Milka Skakavac, a 72-year-old refugee from the Bjelovar region, came to the village of Hrtkovci in 1992 and according to her, as was confirmed by her four-years-younger husband Milivoje and 51-year-old son Milivoje whose wife, an ethnic Croat, stayed behind in Croatia with their daughter, while Milivoje brought their son, Milka's grandson, with him to Serbia. Therefore, at that time Jesus was already not in Hrtkovci. The theory of that Croat woman, otherwise a friend of Milka's neighbor Mara, is therefore proven wrong, Milka believes. Serbs came to the village after Jesus had disappeared.
"What Jesus? Where?"
"A stone Jesus. There, at the end of the village, there was a stone crucifix. They set that up. And someone brought it down. Now they say that we, the Serbs, did that, and I never even saw that Jesus. Besides, how come it rained all these years, and now there is no rain because Serbs smashed Jesus in 1993," Milka outlines for us logical premises of this issue.
"Therefore, she is trying to provoke us," Milivoje senior gives a serious turn to the discussion.
Recognition: At that moment, an elderly woman and a 50-years-old man appear at the door of the old house which in no way indicates that it has been worked on for the last eight years and that it was exchanged for a "big household and farm with all the farm tools and mechanization" in Bjelovar. The strangers are greeted with curiosity in the Skakavac household, but there are no questions. The visitors are also quiet. Milivoje Senior, with open eyes, exactly like those who want to demonstrate that they are harmless and honest, confidentially nods his head: "They are ours".
Of course, he means Serbs. He neither asked for the nationality of his guests, nor could someone have guessed it from their appearance. There is no mistake, "ours" recognize "ours", and "theirs" are just as good in these sorts of judgments. A practical check follows immediately.
"Where does the Catholic priest live?" we ask.
"The Catholic priest? He lives nearby, next door," Milka responds.
Together with our hosts we go to the gate. A man with a newspaper in hands walks in front of the neighboring house. Spotting strangers in front of the Skakavac household he ends his walk and enters the courtyard protected by a high fence and a gate that is the legacy of local Germans [who were expelled after WWII], the locals claim. While we turned around, Fr. Nikola Kraljevic was gone. We immediately approach the gate and ring. Several times. No one answers.
(In)security: Neighbors, who watched from their gate our attempts, with smile that confirmed that they expected that much, whisper: "He won't open, will he?"
Feeling rather ill at ease after hearing stories of "ours" implying that Croats do not like visitors, especially of the uninvited sort, we open the gate. At that moment a women carrying wooden sticks jumps out from behind the gate.
Her greeting sounds like a question. By her appearance at the gate, the woman pushes us back to the street. We ask for Fr. Nikola.
"Who are you," she asks. We introduce ourselves for the second time.
"He is not at home," the woman responds.
"What do you mean. We just saw him entering the courtyard."
"He is not here. He went to the village."
"But we've just seen him going through the gate."
"You're right, but he immediately got on his bicycle and went to the village," the mistrustful woman finishes by mumbling.
For a moment it seemed that a look at the long and empty street may shake up the woman, or that our peeking in the yard and the fact that the bicycle was there leaning against the wall next to the gate may eventually bring the local priest out. However, nothing. The woman said that he was perhaps in his apartment in the village, or maybe in the church, or perhaps he is meeting someone. Who knows?
Later we found out indirectly that the priest, who is one of the key participants in the events that took place in Hrtkovci and who, according to some of Serb settlers, gathered around himself those ethnic Croats who claimed that Croats were forced to exchange their property [for the property Serbs left behind in Croatia], actually has an apartment in front of the Catholic church but that he seldom goes there because someone had already broken his windows and stoned the apartment. He rents a room from Skakavac's neighbor. Apparently, he feels safer there.
Tobacco road: Eight years later - Hrtkovci. The name Srbislavci did not stick, but Serbs obviously did. Everything seems quiet and uneventful, just like the plain in which this once upon a time overwhelmingly Croat village is located. Today, most of residents are ethnic Serbs. The village is located about eighty kilometers from Belgrade, near Sabac in the Ruma municipality.
Since the time Jesus "left" Hrtkovci, and he "left" roughly immediately after the story about exchanges of houses between the local Croats and Serb refugees from Croatia leaked out; after sentencing of Ostoja Sibincic, at one point the president of the local commune, identified by the journalists as "the leader of Serbs" in Hrtkovci; after the authorities were accused of ethnic cleansing, and after the situation somehow "quieted down", almost no one from outside has visited the village. Until a few days ago when Bratislava Buba Morina, the Minister for Refugees, visited the village and announced that the construction of 11 houses for refugees from Croatia will definitely be finished before the deadline.
In the last eight years the village has visibly grown, by 400 newly constructed houses. These days it is adorned by bags of peppers selling along the road. The locals say that this region used to be famous for its watermelons. Local Croats mostly raised watermelons. Since the Serbs became a majority, Hrtkovci became a tobacco producing region.
"That is hard work, but we did that in Croatia and continued here," a polite clerk at the local commune explains this change in local agricultural practices. Nevertheless she wishes to remain anonymous as she is "not authorized to make statements". Besides, the president of the local commune Hrtkovci, Mira Arezina, is here. She is a teacher, a refugee from Podravska Slatina. She became a refugee in 1992. Many Serbs now living in Hrtkovci came from Podravska Slatina and Grubisno Polje. Some of them are also from Zagreb, Split, from "all over".
Who knows: Mira Arezina explains that 22 family homes are being built in the part of the village called "Livade" [meadows]. The houses are built by the Commission for Refugees, the construction material has been paid, people "invest their work", and life is pretty good.
"According to the last census, there are 4459 residents in the village. 3585 permanently live here. Nine years ago Hrtkovci had 2174 inhabitants, and most of them were ethnic Croats. Yes, we even have three families of refugees from Kosovo, who are staying with their relatives," Mira Arezina explains.
"How many Croats are left in the village?"
"Who knows? To be honest, we didn't bother to count. Today, there are more Hungarians than Croats in the village," says the president of the local commune. There are no precise data about the number of Croats who left, she claims. "The past should be left behind. People now live well and no one cares about ethnic backgrounds," she adds. Look, the village has made progress, water wells have been built, in 1994 the Orthodox Church was built, a priest has come, houses for refugees are being built, people expand and fix homes they switched with Croats...
They say that there is no more emigration. True, last year one more family left, and another one this year, but that is all. People go as they please.
They all love each other again, it seems. Although from afar. Serbs from Croatia, as they say, stick together. Serb settlers claim that Croats do not like house visitors, they are "friendly on the street", do not like guests. Relations are better with Hungarians, although they also stick together.
Visitors: We ask for Ostoja Sibincic. "Ostoja is a member of the local community council; people elected him and he did not even know that he was nominated for a councilor. He is a good man. He helped to whomever he could. He is like God for Serbs," says the clerk in the local commune office.
Those who are about to finally get a house from the Commission for Refugees in Hrtkovci share a similar opinion about Ostoja. On the other hand, eight years ago, Ostoja Sibincic was portrayed in the media as a man who threw Croats out of their houses, threatened them with expulsion, with cutting off of hands, was a Serb extremists and a supporter of Vojislav Seselj's Serb Radical Party. Finally, some people in Hrtkovci simply turn away at mere mention of Ostoja Sibincic's name.
"He later had a lot of trouble. He helped people a lot, and the stuff they wrote about him, well...," says 57-years-old Jovan Stojic, who in 1991 came to Hrtkovci from Grubisno Polje. His future neighbor Stevo Vukojevic, a refugee from Novska, who has just finished foundations for his new house, whose construction is hampered by the lack of electricity because "the electrical utility company from Ruma is late in laying the wires", also describes Sibincic as a "good man". Just like most of the settled Serbs.
"He did not chase anyone away. People demanded to exchange houses, went to Croatia, visited Serb homes that are incomparably better than the local houses. Do you know how many and what sort of houses we left behind and what was life like over there? No one chased anyone away. Those who profited from the move, left. Perhaps some of them were scared, but there was no reason to be scared," Vukojevic adds.
He starts listing "Serb cases", and counting the value of property left to Croats, and the property left behind by Croats in Serbia, recalls stories about Croats who sent aid to their homeland. "But no one wants their houses, nor did anyone take away by force anyone's home. Who would do something like that? Look, people who left come back, visit homes and graves in the cemetery," says Jovan Stojic.
Jovan also lives in the house of a Croat whose sister lives in Germany and as soon as she gets back he is prepared to give her keys and abandon the property, he claims.
Croats, who according to our interlocutors now make up only 30 percent of the local populations, are apparently hard to find. Their side of the story is not heard.
Serbs also went to Croatia, some of them, and some of those who went saw their houses, mostly from afar, they say. But now they are here. And here they are unemployed, the assistance they receive is small, those who do not have houses must pay rent, and all that is unbearable "all this time". And the times are bad, they tell us. And they are afraid they may end up being even worse.
"That's what we're like. First we were bothered by the Slovenians, then Croats, now we're on our own, and who's to be blamed now," Stevo Vukojevic, who came to Hrtkovci in 1995, asks. "However, the people are not to blame. Politicians did their part and we did not profit at all," he adds with a curse that has become a filler for some of the locals: "Screw democracy".
"I tried at that time to help people. I wanted to make sure that no one died in my birthplace, Hrtkovci. People started to exchange houses on their own. I thought that it was better to make sure that they part peacefully, if they had to part. I did not evict anyone by force, did not take anyone to see Croat houses. It is true that there were people who said all sorts of things about me, but I think that they were coached to do so. How could I chase anyone away from here when my best friends in Hrtkovci are ethnic Croats, just like my godmother, who is the mother of the local physician," claims Sibincic.
Sibincic emphasizes that during the last eight years not a single Croat of those who left Hrtkovci filed charges against him or accused him of ethnic cleansing. He says that that is his best defense.
Sibincic does not hide that he supported the Serb Renewal Movement (SPO), that he supported Vojislav Seselj who at that time promoted his party in Hrtkovci. He does not hide that he is a nationalist. He does not see anything bad in that. He frequently swears to the Bible, crosses himself and repeats that "all of us will pay for our deeds".
"I do not deny that I like the name Srboslavci better than Hrtkovci, and I supported that proposal. The people voted for that. We put up a sign, I attended the ceremony, but I respected the decision of the state that the name of the village cannot be changed. Someone took down the sign and that's how it remained," says Sibincic.
He says that it is good that he followed the advice of his lawyer Veljko Guberina, who warned him after his release from prison to go on foot to work. It turned out that that was good advice because his car was blown up in 1993.
"Nada went to the car, the neighbor interrupted her for a moment, and that was our luck. If that did not happen, she would be dead now," says Sibincic.
He does not want to talk about the past, because, he believes, that would seem as if he were trying to defend himself. And, he says, he has no reasons to do that because he is convinced that he did the right thing.