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Red Sky at Night

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief

OMLETINCI, SECTOR EAST — Ivan Mesic is a nice, easygoing, friendly guy. At 36, he has a quick smile and you wouldn't peg him for a day over 30. He's a cop, and when he's not at home with his wife and daughter he sits around a sandbagged checkpoint. 200 meters down the road is a similar set of fortifications.

That's where the Serbs are, and when they're not burning houses in a shattered village 800 meters to the south, they're in another one a short distance to their rear. Sometimes at night you can hear them drinking and shooting off their guns.

If they feel a bit bolder, they come down to their own set of sandbags and blaze away at Ivan's checkpoint, keeping he and his friends awake most of the night and violating a cease-fire that has sort of held since March. If Ivan or his friends fired back they would be in some serious trouble with their own authorities so they just have to sit and take it.

N THE DAY WE MET HIM though, he was so happy he could barely contain himself. For the first time in five years he had been able to venture down the road, halfway to the Serb checkpoint. The day before the UN Forces in that area had closed down their own position and moved away the barbed wire that had kept the road closed all that time. "I wish you had come earlier." He greeted us excitedly. This was a switch, usually the first question at a checkpoint was ‘what were you doing there’ and ‘why weren't you leaving?’ "The UN left yesterday and today I went down the road and looked at my house," said Ivan. "It's one of four in Donje Novo Selo that are still standing!" he went on ecstatically. "Come on, I'll show you."

I was a little nervous about driving down into no-man's land with a bona fide Serb front line in full view at the other end with nary a 1st AD M1A1 in sight. "It's no problem," he assured us, "I was down there today. The Serbs don't even occupy the line any more, they're all back in the village drinking. They only send a patrol around once in a while." His companion, Pero, was a bit nervous himself, but his Kaleshnikov had one of those nifty 75-shot drum magazines in it so I figured he'd pour it on if we ran into trouble. "You know, all houses in Novo Selo were destroyed but mine is still intact." He told us as we started down in the venerable Polo, muffler a draggin'.

We pulled in near an unused UN observation tower that had never been erected, there had been too much sniping in the area. "There it is." He said as we stood on the side of the road and glassed out the village with binoculars. Ivan was glad to be able to show his labor of love to us. It was a nice, big two story job, typical of the region. The houses next to it belonged to his two brothers and his neighbor.

All of them had had to leave when Serbs had seized the area in 1991. "There are Serbs living there now, that's why they haven't destroyed it." He was positively aglow. Even though his house was in occupied territory and there could be no returning until the area reverts to Croatian control, he is one of those people who is an eternal optimist. Even when the Serbs blew an anti-tank mine in place somewhere in the end of the village and sent me diving under the car, thinking they had opened up on us with a mortar, he shrugged it off with a laugh. "No problem Jimmy, no problem."

ATER, AFTER WE RETURNED to the checkpoint, he told us that he had heard there had finally been a breakthrough and that June 1st was the deadline for a general Serb withdrawal from the area and he hoped that he would be able to go home. The place was only 800 meters away but in the current situation it might as well have been thousands of miles. This later turned out to be a rumor, but Ivan is a strong man. All these years of war has not made him a bitter, angry person as it has to so many others. We would learn just how much a few days later, but for then, we passed the time of day and he reflected on the past few years.

His daughter was born on the first day of the war in 1991, and when Serb paramilitary groups began operating full swing in the area, he had packed his wife and child off to the Croatian areas. He had been a policeman before the war, and as they were the only organized units in the beginning, he had seen more than his share of fighting and dying. He is not a hateful man for all of this and when he was telling us what the situation on this part of the line had been before, his tone when speaking about the Serbs in the other trenches was more one of pity than hatred. At one point he referred to them as "poor guys, having to sit in that shit all this time for nothing."

"I wonder sometimes why we sit here and they still sit over there. It's no reason for this, there's nothing of strategy here, just fields and villages. It's their government playing games with them and us. They're going to have to leave anyway, but it just drags out all these years and people suffer for that." At several points in the distance we could see smoke from fields and houses drifting up into the afternoon sky as we spoke. Tractors sent up clouds of dust as farmers worked the fields.

An hour or so later, the nightly Serb patrol came through to see what was up on the Croat side of the road. "Hey guys!" Ivan shouted, jumping up on the sand bags and waving. An army officer and his first sergeant also joined us, investigating the source of the explosion and doing their routine patrol. They all stood there waving and looking at each other through binoculars. When I asked them about the "peaceful re-integration" they were less than optimistic. They figured that they could have the area back under their control in a week if given the green light.

OON WE HAD TO LEAVE, but we returned several days later with some photo prints for Ivan and Pero. Before we left, Ivan gave us an open invitation to stay with his family anytime we wanted. We returned with the promised pictures as Ivan was ending his shift. He was not very happy. The night before, the Serbs living in his brother's house burned it before they left. All that day Ivan had watched more of them tear off the roof to his house and cart it away. "Tonight they will burn mine, I'm afraid." He said, looking pretty beaten.

Donje Novo Selo was front line for a long time and the Serbs living there haven't been really interested in re-building the place. Most of them are already refugees from Bosnia or Krajina and know they'll not be settling in these "borrowed" residences permanently, so when they leave they take anything useful and burn the rest. Their paramilitaries also don't take very kindly to "trespassers." After we had left the day before, the Serbs had fired at his checkpoint till two in the morning, incensed that we all had come into "their area".

When I apologized for getting them shot at he smiled and laughed. There was still that spark. "It's not your fault," he said, "It's nothing new for us." Ivan is a man who's hard to keep down.

"We will all live together again anyway, I don't see why they are still being this way. I don't care what happens, I just want to go back and re-build my home and raise my daughter without all these problems," Ivan told us as we left. I just hope his optimism and tolerant outlook holds up. The UN mandate for the area revolves around "peaceful re-integration", and this plan could take up to a year. The way area Serbs around here have been acting, it could take even longer.

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