A Croatian's Tour of Desolate Homeland

Second of Two Parts

By Steve Appleford

OSIJEK, Croatia — These are the scenes of war's aftermath Zvonko Kutlesa has witnessed today: shattered neighborhoods and churches, a mother and her small children surveying the wreckage that was once their home, armed local men in battle fatigues standing lonely guard on the front line against Serbian forces.

For two helpless years in his Canoga Park apartment, Kutlesa has had to watch images like these from the war-ravaged former Yugoslavia. And he has come these thousands of miles to Croatia not only for a too-brief reunion with his pregnant wife and two children, but also to finally see firsthand what has befallen his country since the beginning of civil war in June, 1991.

He's brought an amateur video camera with him today, determined to document the continuing horrors for the Croatian and Bosnian communities in Los Angeles, where he will grudgingly return by August to earn money for his extended family here. Leaning against the heavy sandbags of a Croatian national guard post in the village of Jovanovac, Kutlesa aims his camera east, toward the Serbian flag flying high above enemy positions just 200 yards away.

The soldiers here, all refugees from the Serb-held village of Tenja six miles away, pass a bottle of warm orange juice between them and trade painful wisecracks about the war and the year-old cease-fire. Kutlesa laughs, though his mood is subdued later. "I didn't lose anything in the war," he said. "And when you're standing there with these people, I felt some shame, because I was in America."

Kutlesa, 38, came to Los Angeles five years ago, eventually joining another Croatian expatriate to form a small but thriving construction firm. During subsequent trips back and forth between the United States and his homeland, he married Vlasta, a college girlfriend. But the last two years have been the most difficult, watching the struggle of a newly independent Croatia and seeing his own relatives turned into refugees.

He remembers speaking by telephone with a sister huddled in a Zagreb basement during a bombing raid while her husband faced Serbs armed with Soviet-made tanks on the battlefield. One bomb fell in an open field 200 yards from his parents' home in Zagreb.

In Jovanovac, the cost of civil war has been much higher. The army estimates that about 50,000 mortars fell here, killing 33 villagers and wounding many. Homes damaged or destroyed during the war are scattered along the main road, some of them reduced to nothing more than mounds of broken clay and splintered wood.

The town stands in a crucial tactical position for the defense of nearby Osijek, where Kutlesa's family now lives. The city of 100,000 already faces Serbian forces on three sides and is protected only by civilian police and United Nations troops. If Jovanovac were to fall, Osijek could be quickly surrounded, with roads and communication lines cut off to the rest of Croatia.

Dragolaub Todoravic commands this post. The 33-year-old ethnic Serb's younger brother wears the uniform of the enemy and faces him across the contact line. Their mother has fled to Hungary. But Todoravic seems to shrug it all off. He jokes that perhaps his brother just likes to celebrate Serbian holidays.

What Todoravic wants are his belongings in Tenja, particularly the photographs of his children.

"That's all I want from my brother," he said. "Then the next time we talk, it will be with weapons."

A plastic figurine of the Virgin Mary rests on sandbags behind him, and soldiers with binoculars scan a raw no-man's land covered with brush and cut power lines. Todoravic prefers to identify himself as Orthodox--by religion--rather than Serb, because his family has lived in this part of Croatia for 300 years. "I feel like I am at home," he said.

This village next to the front line was devastated in a massive attack launched in November, 1991. The people here were mostly farmers and commuters to Osijek. Nearly 300 telephone lines demonstrated an uncommon affluence for so small a village.

Now little works as it once did--not the phones, not even running water. But one woman has returned to the unstable shell that was her house with her two children and a neighbor. "Have you ever seen kids on the front line?" one soldier asked, watching. "They have heart, no fear."

Valerija Bijelic, 29, has brought her children back to visit this house twice before. So Renata, 6, and 3-year-old Ivana have grown accustomed to the sight of destruction. Their mother said she is certain that the neighborhood will one day be rebuilt and resettled by the families that were here before.

"We all went through the same thing," she said, her red and orange blouse flapping in the wind. "Each house has problems. I think we'll feel much stronger for each other than we did before the war."

It is far from certain how long her family will have to wait before the house is rebuilt. Money is scarce in the Croatian economy, private loans rare and building materials expensive. In a country where a doctor's salary is as little as $150 a month, Bijelic's factory worker husband cannot hope to earn the money needed to rebuild.

Only about 760 villagers--of the 1,600 who lived here before the war--have returned permanently since the cease-fire.

Today, 51-year-old Stijo Klasan slowly works on the rubble of his house with a pickax. He's hoping to somehow recycle as much of this crumbling brick as possible when he rebuilds, though he's not sure when that will be. "I have to do this because I need a place to live," he said. "It's very close to the front. I don't feel secure. But where can I go?"

All that survives of his four-bedroom house is a garage, where his wife now sits, cleaning vegetables in the shade. In the attack that finally destroyed everything, Klasan fell with three shrapnel wounds to his upper body. He spent the next six months in a German hospital.

"I'm expecting better times," his wife said confidently. But the money needed to re-create their home seems far away. Klasan's monthly pension is just over $40. And replacing one window could cost him 10 times that.

"This war put me back 30 years," he said. "I'm old. How am I going to rebuild without help?"

The local Catholic priest here, Andrija Vrbanic, 38, must contend with rebuilding a church that once was the tallest structure in the village, thus becoming a prime target for rocket and mortar fire. At his home across the road, he pours brandy for guests and tells Kutlesa that the church was hit 64 times before its roof finally caved in.

This same village survived both world wars with little damage. For the present conflict, Jovanovac was evacuated, its women and children put on seven buses to a safer area on the Adriatic coast. When they returned months later, children were more aggressive than before yet easily frightened by loud noises.

"I believe within the next 10 years the village will not be the same as it was before the war," Vrbanic says. "I tried to get help to rebuild the church, and the first question is, 'How safe is it?' No one is going to invest in a high-risk zone.

"These are very hard times. People outside don't want to understand the situation here. They ask, 'If the shooting starts again, how are we going to pay it back?' "

For Kutlesa, hearing these stories and seeing these people struggle to return home is difficult. The destruction is far worse than anything he had seen in Osijek. Sympathy seems inadequate. "When someone asks you for some kind of help, how can you say, 'I don't have it?' "

In many ways, the Slavonia region of eastern Croatia remains unchanged since Kutlesa's last visit, shortly before the start of civil war. Green and yellow farmland stretches to the horizon, interrupted by tall oak forests. He had traveled through such scenery on his way to Jovanovac, welcomed by a bullet-riddled metal sign warning: "Ratna Zone."

And he found more en route to the village of Gasinci, passing dozens of the ubiquitous roadside statues of Christ nailed to the cross, standing watch over rich fields of corn, wheat, onion, potato and other crops.

At the Gasinci refugee camp near the Bosnian border, a toddler runs between small bungalows, waving a toy machine gun fashioned out of wood scraps. About 2,200 Bosnians live here now. Most have come during the last painful year of war, which still rages across Bosnia, often bringing with them only a plastic bag of belongings.

The difficulties for these Muslims are increased by occasional cultural differences with their Croatian hosts, says camp director Branko Vukoja. And memories of war are a recurring nightmare. "We have a lot of problems. Many people cry, or destroy everything given them at the camp--tables, furniture.

"We have a social worker here, but not a psychiatrist because we don't have enough money." One woman weeps so deeply for her husband killed in the war, a doctor is regularly called to give her an injection.

Children at the camp's primary school decorate their classrooms with bright drawings of flowers and battlefields. In an adjacent bungalow are gathered the old and infirm, many of them lonely and abandoned by their families.

Kutlesa captures much of this on videotape, squinting into his camera and panning across the camp, over to the few cars and tractors brought here from Bosnia, to the laundry hanging over rugged fields, to old men quietly congregated on shaded benches. The camp handyman sits on an old television outside his concrete hut, reading a newspaper. And men and women sit glumly in doorways, watching.

It's a sad, disturbing scene for Kutlesa. Though an ethnic Croatian, he was born in Bosnia, in an area now devastated and under the control of Serbian forces. He is still shaken by news of the destruction two months ago of an ancient mosque in the Bosnian city of Banja Luka.

"It was part of the history of Bosnia, it was part of architectural history," Kutlesa said with quiet anger. "And they destroyed it because it was a mosque and not a Serbian church. That mosque was built by the people and belongs to the people."

He said he will never return to Prijedor, the Bosnian town of his childhood. So Kutlesa will never see the grave of a close friend who died while he was in Los Angeles. And he will never return to the place where generations of his mother's family are buried.

At Gasinci, Kutlesa meets 13-year-old Adis Mujkic, who lost six members of his family last year, including a twin brother, when a mortar hit his house. Now he sits with his grandmother, who knits from a ball of red yarn and speaks of her lost son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren. "I have six wounds," says Senija Mujkic, tears welling in her gray-blue eyes. "I am going to have those wounds my whole life. I can't forget that."

Life here otherwise isn't unpleasant for her, her husband and grandson, she said. Some semblance of community has emerged. But it isn't home. "I'm just waiting for the decisions of politicians, for permission to go back."

Kutlesa finds similar frustration at the refugee camp for Croatians in the town of Cepin, where many struggle to resume their lives as before. They do so by farming small plots of land behind their bungalows, or by commuting to jobs or school in nearby Osijek. Others have found only more depression here, because their homes are very close but in Serbian-controlled territory, and out of reach.

"How do you destroy a civilization?" Kutlesa asks angrily. "You clear the land of the people and all the buildings, and in 20 years it's all gone. Nobody knows what was there before."

Of the nearly 2,600 refugees here, many have been without a home for two years. They were moved repeatedly from one refugee site to another, in hotels, gymnasiums and elsewhere across the country. At Cepin, each family is given one of two small apartments in a bungalow.

Behind the closed bedroom door of one unit, Tomica Balentovic, 15, listens to old punk rhythms by the Clash and to other Western recordings. His mother, Ruzica, sits at a kitchen table and tells Kutlesa the story of their family's arrival here two months ago, of the bombardment of their home city of Vukovar, of their capture by Serbs and the beatings suffered by her husband and eldest son.

"I want to go back," she said tearfully, in spite of widespread reports of mass destruction in Vukovar. "Nobody expects it to be like it was before. The best place is home."

Two weeks after his return to Croatia, Kutlesa is back at the front line, this time in the village of Nustar. A national guard escort brings him to the remains of a house on the farthest edge of town, where a narrow road leads to the captured village of Ceric, once home to 1,500 Croatians. The road is empty of traffic, blocked ominously by a dozen Croatian tank mines.

Vukovar can barely be seen at one horizon. And it is toward that city, and Ceric, that Kutlesa points his camera from the second floor of the house. His escort warns of Serbian sniper activity in the area, and Kutlesa moves carefully across a floor covered with shards of clay and concrete.

"Why die for nothing?" he said a moment later. "If I am going to die, I will die with a weapon in my hand."

Outside the house, retired Nikola Culjak has come to the front to look toward Ceric, his home for 40 years. He is a regular visitor here, traveling from his new home in Vincovci, despite the snipers, mines and warnings.

He stands watching in his tinted glasses and chuckles in resignation. "Almost everyone from that village comes here to take a look," said Culjak, 60. "Everybody wants to go back. You can't imagine how strong this feeling is."

Kutlesa stops nearby to speak with a young man holding his baby son beside their ruined home. With his parents, wife and two children, Nica Cikac lives in two surviving rooms in back. Most of their belongings were destroyed in the war.

A large stack of donated bricks are nearby; the family plans to rebuild. "The situation is dangerous, but it's best for us to be together," said Cikac, 32. He served in the army during the war, while his family was scattered to safe areas across Croatia. "The problem is we have children here, and I have to watch them. We don't feel secure because we are on the front line."

Later, in the car, Kutlesa smiles to himself. "I'm proud of these people, you know, because they're rebuilding. They're not just sitting around and waiting. They're trying to do the best they can. They have some spirit. This country is going to live longer than Serbia thinks."

Nothing in Nustar was safe during the war. Even the cemetery became a target, and it still shows the marks of attack. Tombs and headstones of Croatian, German and Serbian dead from several generations are scarred by shrapnel.

Luka Perica is here now, as he is most days, smoking a cigarette beside the grave of his son. Etched in the marble headstone is a portrait of 26-year-old Zdenko, an Osijek police officer who was among the first casualties of the ethnic conflict in Croatia.

"I didn't care about my house," said Perica, 53, referring to the bombing during the war. "But I wanted to save this graveyard because it belongs to me. It's everything that I have."

It's quiet as Kutlesa listens to this father describe the ambush of his son and his commander, who had gone to help two officers captured by Serbs. Kutlesa pauses for a moment on his way out of the cemetery and comes near to tears as he translates the father's last comment: "I am very proud of my son." Then Kutlesa turns and walks silently past the graves.

Los Angeles Times, July 05, 1993

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