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Cover of Autumn 2002 - Winter 2003 Issue

The Changing Faces of Croatia

Yugoslavian childrenDr. David Hardin, a Longwood University geography professor and Fulbright Scholar, recently had a first-hand look at the effects of the fratricidal war that ravaged the former Yugoslavia a decade ago and forever changed the ethnic composition of Croatia, one of its breakaway republics.

Dr. David Hardin spent February 19 through June 19 in Croatia as a Fulbright Scholar conducting archival research and visiting Serb settlements in the Western Slavonia region that became embroiled from 1991-95 in what Croats call the Homeland War. This is part of his ongoing research into the Serb community's disastrous attempt to create a "Greater Serbia" by driving Croats and other ethnic groups out of Serb-dominated areas of Croatia known as the Serb Krajina (pronounced kry-eena, which means "border"). As a result of ethnic cleansing by both sides and successful Croatian military operations that regained the territory in 1995, some two-thirds of the total Serb population of Croatia – at least 380,000 people – fled, and whole sections of the Krajina are now sparsely settled and in some instances resettled by ethnic Croats from other regions of Croatia and the former Yugoslavia.

"I drove over 7,000 miles in my study area, visiting about 10 settlements each day and averaging 250 to 300 miles on roads that had deteriorated badly over the last 10 years," says Dr. Hardin. "Because of unusually late and heavy snows – as much as five feet at elevations – I had to wait until April before I could canvass the 280 settlements scattered over 2,500 square miles that had a Serb majority or plurality before the war. I also was under a time constraint, because I had to do most of my work before the spring greening hid what I was looking for. My Croatian colleagues were amazed that I negotiated those roads in a peugeot station wagon. I really needed a Jeep to get around, due to deep ruts, mud, rickety bridges, encroaching vegetation, deer, herds of sheep and cattle, and extensive mine contamination."

Street of a town in YugoslaviaIn each town, village or hamlet, some of which he'd visited previously, Dr. Hardin conducted interviews in the rudimentary Croatian he has learned, in English (which younger people often speak), and in German, in which he's semi-fluent, which older people sometimes speak. "I carried maps and pictures with me that gave them a good idea of what I was up to. In some cases, I think my attempts to communicate with them struck them as amusing. Occasionally I was invited into their homes for coffee or soft drinks, which, given the poverty in these isolated settlements, probably meant a real sacrifice on their part. They introduced me to a new taste sensation called 'bambus,' a 50-50 mix of red wine and Coke. Unfortunately, I had to decline because Croatia has a zero-tolerance drunk driving law!"

His greatest concern was landmine contamination. "You absolutely never venture off paved surfaces unless it's obvious that other vehicles have been there before – and even then it's risky – and you never go into destroyed structures," he says. "I have a good set of maps of active minefields, but much of what I did fell under the category of ‘calculated risk.' I became painfully aware of this when I came across a de-mining operation and heard a mine-clearing flail detonate a mine in a field across from me as I was taking photos."

Western Slavonia lies in northern Croatia between Bosnia-Hercegovina, to the south, and Hungary, to the north, about an hour's drive by highway from Zagreb, Croatia's capital. "The area is very reminiscent of Appalachia: low, heavily forested mountains and hills with numerous isolated coves dotted with patches of plowed fields, pastures and orchards," says Dr. Hardin, who first became interested in the conflict in this region in 1999 when he drove from Hungary through Croatia on the way to the Adriatic Sea coast. "I was aware of the conflict but still was shocked to see a line of destroyed villages on the edge of the conflict zone. It was quite a shock to see scenes reminiscent of World War II. That really sparked my interest."

Dr. Hardin, who specializes in historical geography, returned in 2001 and 2002 to gather government publications, census materials and maps in Zagreb and to interview residents and document damaged and deserted Serb villages in the Serb Krajina. Before this year's visit, he converted and analyzed the published data from the 2001 Croatian census and produced a set of maps on the change in ethnic composition and other effects of the conflict in Croatia from 1991 to 2001. The total Serb population in Croatia during this period fell from 12.2 to 4.5 percent; in Western Slavonia the Serb population suffered a 69.2 percent decline, from 95,621 to 29,451.

Dr. Hardin's specific interests include the processes and patterns of ethnic cleansing that engulfed both the Croat and Serb populations during the conflict, the resulting demographic changes, the barriers to the Serbs' return – such as the destruction of housing, damaged infrastructure, mine contamination and legal impediments – and the conversion of the landscape into a Croat one over the past decade. The Fulbright Research Grant gave him the opportunity to expand the areas he covered previously and allowed him to focus on changes in the "cultural landscape" that he had noticed in previous years.

"Burned out houses scrawled with anti-Serb graffiti, destroyed and damaged Serb Orthodox churches, and defaced headstones in cemeteries are obvious signs of Croat sentiment toward Serbs in Western Slavonia. But something more subtle I noticed in 2002 was the widespread destruction of signs, plaques and ‘Anti-Fascist' monuments inscribed with the Cyrillic alphabet, which Serbs use. This year I made a careful survey of smashed and defaced markers and monuments, and whether they were in the Latin alphabet (used by Croats) or Cyrillic. Once I map that data, I will be able to tell whether the removal of Cyrillic from the landscape has a pattern to it."

As part of Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic state cobbled together after World War I, Croats had felt they were under Serb domination. Enmity between Serbs and Croats, both of whom view themselves as victims, was exacerbated by World War II, when some Croats, called Ustashe, allied themselves with Nazi Germany and killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and others deemed "undesirable" by the Nazi regime. Serbs largely allied themselves with communist Partisans or with nationalist Serb forces known as Chetniks. When the war ended, Partisans and Chetniks exacted revenge upon the Ustashe and other ethnic Croats in a spree of mass killing. Following the death in 1980 of Yugoslavia's longtime president, the communist strongman Marshal Tito, ethnic tensions resurfaced and a power-sharing form of government proved ineffective.

In 1991 Croatia declared its independence – it was the first independent Croatian state in 1,000 years, they like to say – and wrote a constitution that was discriminatory toward Serbs," says Dr. Hardin. "They once again were making it difficult to be a Serb in Croatia. Against that backdrop, Serb nationalists went from village to village in Croatia whipping up pro-Serbian, anti-Croat sentiment among their people with warnings the Ustashe were back and would begin killing Serbs once again.

"In dry political terms, you could say the disagreement in Croatia was over borders. The Croats wanted the boundaries to conform to the republic boundaries established under Tito; the Serb dream was to redraw them based on ethnicity. This is where Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic helped drive the process, with the ultimate goal of creating a Greater Serbia. He convinced a handful of local Serb nationalists to unite all the territory in which there were ethnic Serbs in Croatia. This meant the Serbs had to be prepared to annex one-third of Croatia. It was a classic case where reach exceeded grasp."

Serb militias and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) launched their bid for Croatian territory in 1991 and annexed three pockets in Croatia that contained large numbers of Serbs, which they later combined as the Republic of the Serbian Krajina, or RSK. "They went through all the motions of statehood, even printing their own money and stamps," says Dr. Hardin. "Strategically, though, it wasn't a tenable idea since these three pockets weren't contiguous." After it became clear the JNA wouldn't defend the territory, Serb forces pulled back in the winter of 1992, leaving thousands of Western Slavonia's Serbs open to Croatian reprisals. Croatian forces regained the RSK in blitz campaigns in May and August 1995.

"Serbs were generally found in the poorer agricultural areas in the uplands in Western Slavonia," says Dr. Hardin."It was never a prosperous place and many Serbs were living a semi-subsistence lifestyle. The war destroyed what little economic infrastructure was there. There are no good jobs, no good markets for agricultural goods. Logging is the only viable activity, and even that will be limited by landmine contamination. I was constantly amazed by how much logging was going on in areas I know have to be mined.

"Despite the efforts of the Croatian government and international relief agencies, there is little incentive for young Serbs to return," he added. "Not only is the economy in shambles, but they are painfully aware that they are surrounded by a resentful Croat majority. Rebuilt homes, as opposed to new homes, often have ‘for sale' signs with phone numbers to contact sellers in Banja Luka, in the Serb area of neighboring Bosnia. Serb returnees are overwhelmingly elderly; almost everyone I talked to was 50 or older. Eventually more and more of these settlements will become ghost towns and will be swallowed up by the surrounding forests."

While in Croatia, Dr. Hardin was affiliated with the geography department at the University of Zagreb. "My Croatian colleagues are wonderful people who work very hard under difficult circumstances. Many of them hold down second jobs to supplement their meager salaries. I hope to find them new contacts and opportunities so they can publish in North American journals, and I have agreed to be the English-language editor for two of their publications. My Fulbright trip was a fantastic experience but not nearly long enough."

Dr. Hardin was accompanied and aided in his research by his wife, Elizabeth Winegar Hardin, a fellow geographer and former zoning administrator for Powhatan County, and their son, Luke, who turned 5 during the trip. He has presented preliminary results of his research at several conferences, including meetings of the Association of American Geographers last year and in 2003 and 2002.

His other ongoing European research project, which he began in 1999, involves documenting attitudes toward, and the fate of, Nazi and Cold War-era sites in Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary. This interest has led him to more than a dozen European nations, some of which he visited again during his visit as a Fulbright Scholar.