Serb bravado has turned to cries of betrayal as the thunder of Croatian artillery rolls closer.
Knin’s cafes are closed, power and phones are cut and the streets are crowded with military vehicles and rebel Serb soldiers.
Radio and TV broadcasts offer encouraging news from the shifting front lines east of Knin and regularly condemn “panicking rumors spread by irresponsible persons.”
But since Croat forces seized two key Bosnian towns east and northeast of Knin last week, cutting its main road to Serb-held Bosnia, Croat rockets and shells have begun pounding Knin’s outskirts.
Soldiers say Bosnian government and Croat units in Bosnia are pushing west and north to threaten Knin’s two remaining road links and strangle the breakaway Croatian Serb “state” of Krajina - the same tactic used by Serbs against Bosnia’s Muslim enclaves.
“We are lost, it’s clear now,” said Smiljka Djurica, 20, from the village of Donji Lapac, near Knin.
“It’s better to take a rifle and go to a front line, kill as many Croats as possible before they kill you,” Djurica said. “I won’t wait for them to rape me and slaughter me on my land.”
Knin, a drab industrial town whose skyline is dominated by a hilltop medieval castle, became the Croatian Serbs’ self-proclaimed capital after their 1991 rebellion captured one-third of Croatia’s territory.
Until recently, they were confident Serb-led Yugoslavia would support them against any Croatian military threat.
But now Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who incited civil wars in Croatia and Bosnia, is trying to present himself as a peacemaker, hoping that will end crippling U.N. sanctions.
The Serbs of Croatia cling to the goal of uniting with Milosevic’s republic in a “Greater Serbia,” but accuse him of abandoning them.
Many are hastily packing their bags to flee Knin.
Serbs who choose to fight now generally blame the lack of support from “Mother Serbia,” rather than the advancing Croat forces, for their poor military fortunes.
“What does Serbia want now? It dragged these people into this war and is washing its hands now,” said Spasa Petrovic, a militiaman serving with Croatian Serb forces around Knin.
Petrovic, who comes from the town of Sabac in Serbia, said he also fought on this front in 1991. He said many Knin residents “still hope it’s only a game and, if Croats really press hard, Serbia will enter the war and save them.”
Milosevic was once adored in Knin, but today has become a target of hate because of his decision to distance himself from the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs.
“He will sell out all Serbs for his political survival. He wants us to go back to Croatia. He is pushing us there like a lamb to the slaughter,” said one soldier, who did not give his name because his relatives live in the Croatian-held port of Split.
Many of Knin’s women, left to fend for themselves as their brothers and husbands went to fight and die on the front lines, say they have nowhere to go.
“Many people have already left. My sister is the only one who remained in her apartment building,” said a woman who identified herself only as Slavka.
Slavka, whose two brothers are fighting the Croats, said she had no option but to stay and hope to survive the Croatian advance she considers inevitable.
“Where to go? To Serbia? No way, because I can only be a second-class citizen there,” she said.
Tens of thousands of Serbs who have fled Croatia and Bosnia for Serbia live as refugees, often resented by natives who accuse them of taking jobs or soaking up scarce resources in welfare.
The Serbs’ loss last Friday of two towns in neighboring Bosnia, Grahovo and Glamoc, spread fear in Knin that it would be encircled by Croat forces.