Feature 06 May 15

A Serbian Village Trying to Forget

Twenty-three years after Croats started fleeing the ethnically-mixed village of Hrtkovci in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, many people prefer not to remember the nationalist rally that sparked the exodus.

Ivana Nikolic
Fire station in the centre of the village. Photo: BIRN.

“I didn’t want to leave Hrtkovci [during the 1990s]. I was born here, my parents were born here and my kids were born here,” said the Croat flower seller, yelling to make herself heard over the noise of cars and trucks on the nearby road running through the village.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, recalls how a bomb was thrown into her backyard back in 1992, at the peak of Serbian propaganda in Vojvodina.

“But I was not afraid,” she said, adding once again that her family never intended to leave Hrtkovci.

Back at the beginning of the 1990s, Hrtkovci, which lies less than 50 kilometres from the Croatian border, was ethnically mixed with a large Croat population.

“Everything was different and normal before the war,” the woman recalled.

A poster on a bus stop in the centre of Hrtkovci supporting Vojislav Seselj. Photo: BIRN.

But things changed for the worse exactly 23 years ago, on May 6, 1992, when Vojislav Seselj, the nationalist leader of the Serbian Radical Party, held a rally in the village and read out a list of people he named as “undesirable” Croats living in Hrtkovci.

This caused Croats to start leaving not only Hrtkovci but also other villages close to the border including Platicevo and Nikinci where the population was either mixed or predominantly Croat.

Seselj’s allies and supporters then started harassing the remaining Croats. Over the next three months, many of them were threatened with death, intimidated and forced to leave the area. It was part of a campaign of intimidation by Serbian nationalists which saw thousands of Croats flee the Vojvodina region.

Croats who stayed in the village can still feel an atmosphere of division even now, the flower-seller said.

“We are not really in touch with them [Serbs], but we respect each other and we greet each other on streets, for the sake of love and peace,” she explained.

The older generations are quite reserved towards each other, but their children hang out together despite their ethnicities, she noted. “No one is to blame for what happened, neither Serbs nor Croats,” she said.

But there is one name that still inspires fear and anger - Vojislav Seselj.

“That Seselj is the only one who makes trouble. When people see or hear him, they just don’t feel well, secure,” she explained.

Seselj returned to Serbia last year after being granted temporary release for cancer treatment by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where he was being tried for war crimes. After arriving in Belgrade, he declared that he would not return for the verdict in his trial and launched a series of inflammatory nationalist statements that revived memories of the 1990s.

A former community leader in Hrtkovci, Ostoja Sibincic, was prosecuted for hate speech, threats and intimidating Croats in 1992, but he was acquitted by a local court the year afterwards.

Each year, on the anniversary of Seselj’s inflammatory speech, humanitarian NGOs and civil society associations call on the state to prosecute others responsible for threatening and expelling Hrtkovci’s Croats. Among them is a political party called the Democratic League of Croats in Vojvodina.

“It is well-known that Croats from Srem [a part of Vojvodina] were under the most severe attack. Tens of thousands of innocent people, loyal citizens of this country, whose only fault was their ethnicity, had to move out because of murderers, incidents, threats and overall insecurity,” the party said in a statement the day before Wednesday’s anniversary.

A silent village

Serbian Orthodox Church in Hrtkovci: Serbs are now a majority in the village. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Years after the war ended, people are reluctant to talk about what the tiny village went through during the conflict.

On sunny Sunday afternoon, there were few people out in this village of 3,400, mostly in front of the small local tavern. All that could be heard in the almost silent streets was loud folk music coming from Hrtkovci’s only restaurant, where inside the only person was only a waiter watching a football match on television.

“No, I have nothing to say. Sorry,” the waiter said, remaining in his chair and turning his head back to the big screen to follow the game.

Close to the tavern there is a shop, a grilled-meat kiosk and a bakery. The baker is one of many Serbs who fled Croatia because of the conflict and resettled in Hrtkovci. But when asked about the war, he simply turned his head and said: “I’m not interested.”

The woman who owns the nearby grill kiosk offered little more: “Divisions in Hrtkovci? Sure we have them! There are rich people and there are poor people,” she said, laughing loudly.

Three women on the main road nearby did agree to talk, but asked to stay anonymous.

“It was terrible back then, but no one talks about the past any more. We all live together here,” said one of them as she sat near a small stand selling fruit.

“It’s been 23 years, the 24th is coming,” she said.

Her two fellow villagers, both Serbs, nodded significantly. “There are no differences among us. We all pray to the same god,” the woman said, turning back to her fruit stand.

Perhaps some of the bad memories have been set aside now most people in Hrtkovci have to share the same problems - poverty and unemployment, like everywhere else in Serbia.

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