By Linda Paric
MELBOURNE — Maria Puric, a middle-aged woman, lost everything she owned, as well as family and friends, in the town that was once Vukovar. Vida and Mato Vulic are both in their 60s; everything they owned was left in the town of Dalj, in north-eastern Croatia, which was "liberated" by the Chetniks. Seventy-six-year-old Mrs Viduka lost 12 relatives in a massacre in Skabrnja, in south-eastern Croatia.
They were among the people who told their story at a press conference here on June 22 to launch Refugee Week.
According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, there are 17 million refugees in the world. In Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, there are 1.5 million — about 41,000 new refugees a day in a year of fighting.
More than 650,000 refugees are being looked after in war-torn Croatia. They are housed in sports stadiums, in the deserted tourist hotels on the Dalmatian coast and in the capital and in trains that no longer leave for their old destinations.
According to Tonka Jolic, a 20-year-old Australian citizen who travelled to Bosnia-Hercegovina to find her mother, their refuges are not safe: Serbian planes often drop bombs on the stadiums and hotels that house refugees.
All the refugees at the press conference had similar stories of the ethnic "cleansing" that is dramatically changing the demographic profile of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. In eastern Bosnia-Hercegovina before the war, the population was 70% Muslim. It is now less than 10%. In north-eastern Croatia over a quarter of a million Croats used to make up a majority of the population. There are now about 500 Croats left there.
Mrs Vulic told of women, the elderly and children being loaded onto buses to escape the massacre in Dalj, with the help of the "liberating" Yugoslav army, and all of them being off-loaded and told to make their own way across the mined fields once the news cameras of Television Novi Sad (from Serbia) had stopped rolling.
Her son was so badly beaten that his kidneys are now rotting in his body. Mrs Vulic said, "The men who did survive were forced to dig trenches for the army and the Chetniks and collect the massacred bodies of their friends and family and bury then in mass graves".
The images of refugees walking across the mined no-man's-land in eastern Slavonia still haunt Tonka. So does the fact that "All the women who were of child-bearing age were pregnant, and I mean all of them. Every single female had been systematically raped." The refugees at the press conference all knew when their towns and villages were next. The Serbs would be cleared from the village or the town before the attack. After the towns and villages are "liberated", these refugees are resettled into areas that are ethnically "cleansed". Vida and Mato Vulic watched a Serbian family being moved into their house as they were forced to leave.
The only solution in the long term, according to the vice chairperson of Croatian Community Welfare, Tomislav Bosnjak, is humanitarian aid for Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina and world action to ensure that the refugees can return to their homes. He said, "To date the Australian government has given $300,000, of which $200,000 was sent to Belgrade".