Oddly Uneven, A Refugee Swap Unfolds A Busload Of Croats And Bosnian Muslims Went Free. The Serbs Never Arrived.

Posted: September 04, 1992

OKUCANI, Croatia — At a bombed-out gas station, next to a highway whose lanes are reserved for either Croats or Serbs, beyond a U.N. checkpoint where Jordanians and Nepalese speak English to Croats, it seemed only fitting that a simple bus arrival would degenerate into chaos.

Croatia and Serbia were attempting a refugee swap.

No one could explain precisely how it unfolded Wednesday afternoon, least of all the Croats or Serbs. It was determined only that about 70 war refugees aboard a bus continued their troubled journey through the remains of the former Yugoslavia.

The exchange had been arranged for Okucani, which war has reduced to a highway checkpoint. The once-thriving town lies at the edge of a small stretch of eastern Croatia seized and occupied by Serbian forces.

It seemed a convenient site to bring warring Serbs and Croats together. Both sides could reach it safely because U.N. Protection Force checkpoints are posted at either end of the Serbian-controlled zone.

At the designated hour, a bus loaded with about 70 Croats and Bosnian Muslims arrived at Okucani. After several long arguments between local officials, the refugees poured off the bus, rushing past relief workers who tried to take them off one at a time.

Babies wailed and men cheered and women broke into tears as the refugees were reunited with their families. Several among them said they had been driven from their homes in Bosnia-Herzegovina by Serb fighters and forced to sign over their homes to local Serbs.

Soon Croat officials with the nation's Red Cross relief organization began comparing the names of the refugees with a list of Croats and Bosnian Muslims to be exchanged. Not a single name from the bus group was on the prepared list.

This perplexed the Red Cross people, but not the refugees, who continued to hug long-lost relatives and exchange tales of their three-month ordeal in Serb custody.

Then another snag developed. The anticipated busload of Serbians never arrived.

Tranjo Pavlovic, a Croat in charge of the Red Cross delegation, offered an explanation:

The Serbian civilians did not wish to leave Croatia. In fact, he said, they were not refugees at all, but Serbs who had lived in Croatia for years and have so far survived the war that has raged off and on for more than a year.

But Serbian political and military leaders need Serbs to populate the zone they have carved out of Croatia, Pavlovic said. Virtually all Croats and Muslims there have either fled or have been driven out by the Serbs.

So, Pavlovic said, he was not surprised that the Serbian leaders could not persuade the Serbs in Croatia to move to the devastated rural strip that the Serb government now calls Serbian Krajina, named for a Croatian district.

That was Pavlovic's version. There were no Serbian officials at the checkpoint to offer their own explanation for the missing bus.

Wars in Croatia and Bosnia have created an estimated 2.3 million refugees. Thousands of them have been released in similar affairs over the last year, although Croatian Red Cross officials said they had no idea how many.

Among the refugees was Djida Bobinac, 53, and her husband, Nicola, 55, both Croats. They said they had been forced by Serbs to exchange their home in occupied Croatia to a Serb family for its apartment along the Croatian coast.

Then they were herded into Banja Luka, a major Serbian military center in Serb-occupied Bosnia-Herzegovina, they said. There, they were held for three months until their release Wednesday.

At the checkpoint, Djida Bobinac broke into tears as she hugged her infant grand-nephew, Nicola, whom she had not seen since the Serbs forced her from her home. She was still crying as she explained that she and her husband were headed for the coast to see if there truly was an apartment waiting for them. The Serbs had given them a key, she said.

The other refugees were headed to the homes of relatives, according to the Red Cross. Those who had lost contact with families or friends were to be taken to transit refugee camps in Croatia.

After it was over, each side in the war took away something from the Wednesday snafu. Croatia got the safe return of its citizens, as did Bosnia- Herzegovina. Serbia did not find new volunteers for "Serbian Krajina," but it did rid itself of more non-Serbs from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the prime focus of Serbian "ethnic cleansing."

If the failed swap was confusing, so was its location.

The E70 highway, the major east-west artery of the former Yugoslavia, runs through the Serb-controlled zone of Croatia and past Okucani. When U.N. monitors arrived earlier this year, the east-bound lanes in the zone were designated for use by Serbs and the west-bound lanes for Croats.

The U.N. monitors at Okucani, who are from Nepal, watched the aborted swap with great interest Wednesday. But they did not get involved other than to direct traffic to the proper routes.

One element of the swap that did come to pass was the exchange of the bodies of three Croat soldiers killed in action for the bodies of three Serbian soldiers.

But even that was not entirely a quick and efficient affair. As workers were loading the bodies of the dead Croatians onto a truck, the lids tumbled off all three galvanized aluminum coffins. The stench drove everyone back toward the ruins of the Okucani gas station.

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