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Croatia: Vukovar Still Feels Effects Of Ethnic Cleansing

The election excitement sweeping Croatia as a presidential runoff approaches has failed to reach Vukovar, a small town hit terribly by the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s. Correspondent Alexandra Poolos speaks with activists who are struggling to lift the town out of its general mood of depression.

Vukovar, 31 January 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Apathy is palpable on the streets of Vukovar. Few people wander outdoors on this cold winter day. Bombed-out buildings and houses look especially bleak buried beneath the snow. The few businesses open are bars where some gather to drink raiki to ward off the cold.

Before the 1992 war, Vukovar, which lies on the border with Serbia, was called the heart of Croatia's countryside. A bustling township with an equal mix of Serbs and Croats, Vukovar boasted industry and a rich agricultural heritage. But the years spent on the frontlines bled the town of its charm.

Today, unemployment levels here are higher than anywhere else in Croatia. There are no working factories, and most people can only find jobs in state institutions, like hospitals or schools. Vukovar's pre-war population was close to 100,000. Now only 13,000 people remain. Twelve thousand are Serbs, who are still considered outcasts. The local government is almost entirely ethnic Croatian.

The ethnic tensions in Vukovar are part of the very framework of the town. While there is seldom outright violence, the town is sharply divided on ethic lines. Most people stick to their own here. Besides the ethnic tension, high unemployment has led to other social ills, such as alcoholism and violence against women.

Croatia got a new parliament in early January (Jan. 3), and a runoff election to choose a new president is due next week (Feb. 7).

But local activist Marija Molnar says that the apathy is so thick in Vukovar that people don't even know how to voice their complaints. She doubts that the government changes in Zagreb will trickle down to her town.

"I remember their preparations and their pre-election campaigns and everything. They are speaking about human rights or minority rights or whatever in one general forum, which can satisfy general forums. Yes, we care about human rights. We will create a legislative state. [But] that is general and declarative. You cannot find something real in that."

Molnar has developed an umbrella group of NGOs called the Center for Civic Cooperation. Her goal, she says, is to teach people how to make their voices heard.

"We should teach the people and educate the people that they have their rights to make local decisions here, to organize their lives how they want, to have rights to work, to not be afraid of local government, to not have that fear. Because we have a burden on our shoulders. We have that tradition of communist system. And you cannot change just like this. I think the point is about education. People are not educated about these things, because they couldn't learn from TV or from NGOs." One of Molnar's main projects is the Youth Group Danube, a multiethnic youth organization focused on improving ethnic relations among the young. Lana Mayer is a 20-year-old Croatian who runs the group with her Serbian boyfriend, Dejan Kojic.

"In Vukovar, there is no place for Croatians and Serbs together, for young people. All the cafes, wherever you go you know either Croatian people go there or Serbian. Also the schools are divided. There is no school and no class where Serbian and Croatian people go together. So this is Youth Group Danube. And the mission is to help within the reconciliation process. And we want this place to be for all."

Kojic says the social problems in Vukovar fall especially hard on the Serbian youth. He says most of his friends sit around all day depressed, with little to do. Kojic says he will probably not stay in his hometown. He says he is not willing to wait for the changes promised by the new government:

"This is my home. But I want a job, I want to live like everyone else in this country. For Serbs, it's very hard to find a job, because now the jobs are being given to returnees, to Croats coming back to Vukovar, so they can live here." So far, Youth Group Danube has not achieved much response among the young of Vukovar.

Its leaders say they expected that. They believe that any real change in Vukovar will take years to arrive, so thick is the fabric of passivity in the town. But they hope that the young will be more receptive to social change and ethnic tolerance. The older people, they say, will never change.