MIRacles No. 9

Joel GAzis-SAx
19 Kolovoz 1992
Zagreb, Croatia
Copyright 1992

"Our homeland is where we live," Ivan Polakovic of the United Croatian Democratic Party of Vojvodina (DSHV) and member of the Vojvodinan Parliament tells me. "We are not looking to become part of Croatia. What we want is cultural autonomy." He has bad news for me. The day before I arrive in Subotica , Vojvodina, (August 3) two Croats, Nada and Stipan Gustine, are killed in the village of Bac. No one knows who killed them. On their chests had been carved the legend "HDZ: We will drink your blood."

According to Ivan, 17,000 Croats have been expelled or forced to flee from Srem, the southernmost third of Vojvodina. They leave because of violence or threats against them or because of the Serbian Republic government attempts to mobilize them into the army. Ivan believes that mobilization constitutes a means of "ethnically cleansing" Vojvodina of its Croats and other minorities. The Croats, he insists, were drafted by force and sent to the Slavonian, Bosnian, or Dalmatian front. There many of them died when they were put in forward units. Their wounds, Ivan says, were in both the back and the front. "Officially we have peace. We are not at war. The coffins, however, come from Bosnia and from Dubrovnik."

"If you live here," he says, "this is your duty. What can you do? Either you go into the army or you flee. In either case, the house is empty." Ivan is, himself, a mobilization resister. He spent several months of his life hiding and working, hiding and working so that the mobilization officers could not find him. You can see that he has lost weight. The darkness under his eyes betrays the many fitful nights he has spent worrying about his freedom. When I take my leave of him, he gives me several copies of the party newsletter. I shake his hand and ask him if there is anything he wants. "The same rights guaranteed to the other Yugoslav citizens," he replies.

"It is difficult for Serbs to understand minority problems," said Ferenc Csubela, Hungarian MP from Mornica. "They have no language problems, no problems with their schools." I found even peace activists insisting that part of the problem in the new Yugoslavia was caused by the unwillingness of certain minorities to join in the national culture. Serbs and Yugoslavs (people of mixed ethnicity who choose this designation for themselves) tend to characterize Croats, Hungarians, and others as people who do not wish to be part of their society. These others speak of the unwillingness of the Serbs and the Yugoslavs to allow them to be different within that same society.

The Hungarians of Vojvodina insist that what they want is to enjoy their personal and ethnic rights within Yugoslavia. They do not look to Hungary to liberate them by invading and annexing Vojvodina. They want their language, they want their culture, and they want their schools in Yugoslavia. They want to remain where they are.

There are many threats to their continued life in Vojvodina. According to Ference, the Serbian Republic government has been telling Serbian refugees from Bosnia, Dalmatia, and Slavonia that they can come to Vojvodina where they can live in the homes of the Hungarians. One Hungarian woman reported to me: "A few weeks ago, some little Serbian refugee children came to our house and asked my mother when we Hungarians would go."

Hungarians flee economic pressure as well as political pressure. Csubela reported the story of one man whose salary fell to 75 dm or about $50 a month. His rent remained stable at 100 dm or about $70! The lure of better jobs depopulates Vojvodina, not only of its Hungarians, but also its Serbs, Croats, and other ethnic groups. The wealthier life that beckons from abroad strips the land of much of the Hungarian workforce.

Many Hungarian homes are empty because of mobilization. Though Hungarians comprise less than 2 percent of the total population of Serbia, the mayor of Ada told us, they form about 10 percent of the army. As Hungarians die in the field, many young men choose to resist. Ada was the first town in Yugoslavia where the young men banded together and openly declared their resistance to mobilization. Though the 100 refusers could have served 60 day prison terms before being called up again, nothing happened.

When residents of nearby Oromhegyes decided to resist by declaring a surrealistic "Spiritual Republic of Zitzer" last May, the Serbian government responded by surrounding the town with 92 tanks for three days. Other villages (including at least one Serbian town controlled by the Serbian Democratic Party) have also organized support for their young men who chose not to fight in the Serbian war. Of the estimated100,000 young men who left Yugoslavia to escape mobilization, 25,000 were Hungarian.

The Hungarians have been emphatic about facing mobilization and other ethnic pressures nonviolently. "The problem cannot be solved by arms," one Ada town official told me. "This would mean the massacre of the Hungarian people."

Serbian and Yugoslav officials regard every action of Hungarian ethnic organizations and political parties with suspicion. When the Hungarian Party of Vojvodina held its annual meeting this year, the official media reported that its purpose was to declare Vojvodinan independence. A delegation of Hungarians was dispatched to Beograd to set the story straight with Slobodan Milosevic. The Serbian President, Ada's mayor reports, was surprised by this revelation.

"We must fight for our rights with both the Serbian Socialist Party and with the opposition, too," the mayor told me. I now believe that as a peace activist, my duty is not to struggle against nationalism, but against those nationalisms which oppress other nationalism. The struggles of the Croat and the Hungarian minorities in Yugoslavia and of the Serbs in Croatia demonstrate the failure of Yugoslav nationalism and of the nationalisms which succeeded it.

"The solution is not for all Croats to become Serbs," says Tibor Varody, the Yugoslav Federal Minister of Justice, "or Serbs to become Croats, just like the solution in the Middle East is not for all Jews to become Arabs or Arabs to become Jews." Varody, a Hungarian Yugoslav, is emphatic that nothing in his remarks implies that there is no state called Croatia or that there is no Bosnia or that there is no Slovenia. He is realistic about the present state of affairs in former Yugoslavia and he knows, like everyone here knows, that something terrible has happened.

"I do not believe that national affiliation is bad in itself," he continues. "I think is fine for a Serb to be proud to be a Serb, for a Croat to be proud to be a Croat, for a Hungarian to be proud to be a Hungarian. The problem starts when you are losing tolerance. When a Serb starts to believe that a Hungarian is not a human being, here the problem starts."

Because I arrived so ignorant, I am at first surprised by Varody's sincerity and compassion. As an outsider, I had to struggle to get beyond the misunderstanding that the new Yugoslavia was identical to Serbia and that Slobodan Milosevic was its its leader. I had difficulty understanding where this Yugoslav-American businessman, Federal Prime Minister Milan Panic, fit into the picture. When I come back to Croatia, others who have not visited Yugoslavia, are quick to dismiss Panic as a Milosevic puppet. But after meeting Varody, I am not so sure. The government of the New Federal Republic of Yugoslavia may, at this time, not have much power over the constitutionally subsidiary government of Milosevic's Republic of Serbia, but Panic, I now believe, is struggling to lead the country away from militarism and ethnic persecution.

"Minorities not only have the right to be equal: they have the right to be different," Varody observes that this is not a matter of economics, but of culture. "Minorities," he goes on to say, "are also taxpayers." So they have the right to have separate schools and cultural institutions if they so please.

The answer, he feels, is autonomy and decentralization. International monitoring and guidance are additional components, he believes, in the ultimate formula of peace and national tolerance.

Varody has drafted an Act on Amnesty for all those who refused to take part in "this senseless war". The act, if passed by the Yugoslav Parliament, will apply to all those who did not otherwise take up arms against the Yugoslav republic.

I decide to press him about the case of seven Croat soldiers convicted of war crimes and armed insurrection by a military court in Beograd. When I ask him about under what juristiction the court can try these men, he explains that the crimes for which the men were tried occurred in October, two months before Croatia received international recognition. It is a legalistic splitting of hairs, but I feel moved to continue. I express my disagreement with him, but ask if he would accept the jurisdiction of a neutral international court in such cases. Varody pauses to think for a moment and says "Yes. I think that could help bring peace."

I and the other members of the Peace Camp talk excitedly about our meeting with Varody for several days. This sincere man represents some of the best hopes for peace and ethnic harmony -- if his agenda can succeed over that of the Serbian Socialist Party. When I ask him about whether the Serbs will allow him to do his work, he tells me about the men and women, leaders of Srem villages, who came to him during his first two weeks of office, to ask him to intercede on behalf of Croat victims of atrocities. "All the leaders were Serbs."

We are led to hope for the passage of Varody's Amnesty while we are in the new Yugoslavia, but a few days later we learn that parliamentary machinations and objections by the Serbian Socialist Party effectively postpone action on the bill until September. We visit many more villages of resisters and we visit Vukovar. While we are in Vukovar, four Serbs die in a nearby village when they pass too close to the Croatian lines. The ultimate human rights violator, the war, takes these four from their homeland. Whether Croat or Serb or Bosnian or Hungarian, we are all equal in death.