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7 Aug, 2008 02:05

Serb refugees recall horrors of war

As Radovan Karadzic awaits trial on war crimes charges in The Hague, the world is once again remembering the victims of the war in Bosnia.

It’s more than a decade since a quarter of a million Serbs were forced to leave their homes in Croatia. And on the streets of Belgrade the wounds from the Yugoslav war are still raw.

Thirteen years ago, nearly a quarter of a million Serbs fled their homes ahead of the advancing Croatian army.

Dusanka Pjevalica was among them. She fled Croatia with her two teenage sons. For the past five years she's lived in a refugee camp just outside Belgrade.

She says she'll never forget the night her life changed forever.

“It was the night the bombing started. I ran from my house in my slippers and nightgown. My two sons were with me. We walked for three days and three nights to Serbia – we went by foot, by tractor, by bus. There were lots of old and sick people with us. I didn't know what would happen to us. I had no money, no food, I didn't know if I would see my husband again,” Dusanka Pjevalica said.

By the end of Operation Storm, which lasted four days, almost the entire Serb population had fled Croatia for Bosnia and Serbia.

In the days that followed, nearly 2,000 Serbs were killed and some 20,000 houses burnt and looted.

Three Croatian generals are on trial at the Hague in connection with the deaths. They're accused of ethnic cleansing.

The trial is expected to reveal murky details of Western involvement. And with Karadzic behind bars, the American administration could find itself in the firing line.

Ljiljana Smailovic is the editor of the Serbian newspaper, Politika. She says Karadzic’s trial may uncover some uncomfortable truths about US involvement in the ‘wars of secession’.

“Mr Karadzic is a particularly unpleasant witness of some of the things what the West did because Mr Karadzic had been indicted by The Hague tribunal twice, and yet American negotiators continued dealing with him and negotiating with him,” Smailovic said.

But demonstrators say most of the perpetrators have never been brought to book.

Like other refugees, Dusanka Pjevalica is a victim of political games. After months of uncertainty she finally found her husband Milan. He'd been captured by the Croatians and sent to a concentration camp. He says he’ll “never forget a woman whose husband, daughter and son-in-law were shot in front of her. That was one of the worst things I saw.”

“There were also a lot of women who were raped. I remember they'd tie the women to a cross – like a crucifixion – to prepare them for rape,” Milan Pjevalica said.

The Pjevalicas are resigned to living the rest of their lives as refugees. They don't expect to ever return to their home in Croatia.

“A lot of people ask me if I am a nationalist because of what happened. But I can't be. My son married a Croat and the husband of my wife's sister is a Muslim. We are all mixed. I can't be a nationalist because that means I’ll hate part of my own family,” Milan Pjevalica said.