Feature 30 Aug 17

The Croats and Serbs Who Swapped Homes

During the 1990s war, people from villages in Croatia and Serbia swapped houses to escape the violence - a forced population exchange that was labelled ‘humane relocation’, as a new BIRN documentary shows.

Maja Zivanovic BIRN Novi Sad

The trailer for BIRN's new documentary, 'My House Was Your Home'.

Goran Trlaic was born in the Croatian village of Kula and never knew that he should call himself a Serb until someone else told him.

“We never even talked about who was a Serb and who was a Croat. I never knew that until the military enlistment in 1990,” Trlaic says in BIRN’s new documentary, ‘Your House was My Home’, which has its first screeening on Al Jazeera Balkans on September 5.

“When they asked me how I declared myself, I said I was Yugoslav. They said: ‘We know your father, you’re a Serb’, and wrote me down as a Serb,” he recalls.

In 1992, like many other Serbs in Kula, 17-year-old Trlaic fled the village with his family and moved to a house in the Serbian village of Hrtkovci.

Croats who were living in Hrtkovci fled in the opposite direction, moving in to what had been Serbs’ houses in Kula.

This was part of a wider pattern of forced migration during the war in the early 1990s - a period which saw some villages in Serbia and Croatia completely change their ethnic make-up.

As a result of threats, pressure and fear of violence, people were forced to swap the homes in which they were born for houses in the countries in which their ethnic group was the majority.

It was described by the authorities at the time as ‘humane relocation’.

And although the conflict ended more than 25 years ago, some of those who fled have never even been back to see their birthplaces - the memories are still too painful.

Bullying and threats

Stjepan Roland.

Stjepan Roland has been living in Kula in Croatia since 1992, when he fled from Hrtkovci in Serbia.

But although many years have passed, he still feels that he should be living back in Hrtkovci.

“I belong there, that’s normal. I was born there, my family has been there for more than 400 years,” he explains.

On May 6, 1992, the leader of the hardline nationalist Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, came to make a speech in Hrtkovci and openly threatened the Croats living in the area.

“He read a list of people who had to move out or something would happen to them. The people got scared, they realised that they had to move out,” Roland recalls.

A series of violent incidents followed, and many of Hrtkovci’s Croats decided they had no choice but to accept ‘all for all’ house swaps with Serbs living in Croatia, and pack up and leave.

“I could see then that I was not wanted there anymore. Some of them who used to be my friends, they didn’t want to be seen in my company,” Roland says.

Serb newcomers to Hrtkovci started to bully his son, and beat him up, he claims. Then he began to receive threatening phone calls.

“I know that these night calls were made from the post office in [the nearby town of] Ruma. The operator had a list and he called us one by one, saying: ‘Move out, what are you waiting for?’”

Roland reported the threats to the police but was told that they couldn’t do anything to protect him.

“They wanted to create a situation that would make us go away. It was not about the house anymore, it was about staying alive,” he says.

He left for Croatia with his wife and child on May 29, 1992. All he had was a briefcase with his documents, a pair of trousers, a shirt and 100 Deutschmarks.

“I thought it was going to be temporary, until the situation became clear,” he says. “But the situation never became clear.”

Blood and broken glass

Goran Trlaic.

Violence in Kula had also convinced Serbs living there that it was time to flee Croatia.

Goran Trlaic recalls how, before Orthodox Easter in April 1991, people from the neighbouring village of Kutjevo arrived in Kula and started shooting. One of the gunshots hit his house.

“I didn’t hear the shot, I just saw the curtain reaching the centre of the room and my vision became blurred. There was blood on the uncovered parts of my skin, not from the bullet, but from the glass, shattered glass, when the bullet hit it,” he says.

“My brother threw me down on the floor, we turned off the lights, and we didn’t go out.”

The attackers were identified by the police, but due to the political situation in Croatia at the time, they were set free. Trlaic says they also blew up houses, cars and trucks with grenades.

“The trauma I experienced in those final days left a deep impact on me, and we moved out of Kula forever,” he adds.

Like Roland, Trlaic remembers that when his family left Kula, they were confident that it would not be for long.

“We thought that we would return once the army settled this. However, it turned out differently. I still had my summer clothes when the winter came,” he explains.

Trlaic also recalls how it was hard for him as a teenager to reorient himself to a new, unfamiliar environment, and to make new friends.

But his problems didn’t stop there; in 1995, Serbia drafted all eligible males born outside the country into the army. His brother and father were called up.

“During that period some 400 men were drafted from Hrtkovci. They were taken to the battlefield in Bosnia and Kninska Krajina,” he says.

“They sent my father back home and my brother was killed. My brother was killed on July 26, 1995. I’ve got a feeling that suddenly I... I didn’t grow up, I got old.”

Trlaic says he would love to return to the Kula of his childhood; the Kula that existed before the war.

“In Kula, I lived very well. I never once gave it a thought that they [Croatian Catholics] were different from us if they celebrated Christmas two weeks before [Orthodox Serbs]. We went to each other’s houses for Christmas,” he says.

“I can freely say one thing about this community [Kula] - no one cared about other people’s ethnicity.”

Stjepan Roland, who now lives in Kula, has never been back to visit Hrtkovci, the village of his birth, and he declined to make the journey with the crew of BIRN’s documentary film.

“I don’t know if I would be able to bear it... the bond was too strong,” he explains.

“It’s been 24 years now. Is there anyone I know [there]?”

It seems unlikely; before the war, 40 per cent of the people living in Hrtkovci in Serbia were Croats, but today Croats make up just seven per cent.

In Kula in Croatia meanwhile, 91 per cent of the village’s population were Serbs before the war started. Now only two per cent remain.

‘Your House was My Home’ premieres on Al Jazeera Balkans on September 5 at 17.05. See more information about the film here.

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