Thousands of defeated and exhausted Serbs began their slow exodus through Croatia on Wednesday. Croat civilians pelted the refugees with bricks and manure, venting the ethnic hatred that has fueled four years of war in the former Yugoslavia.
Croatian police stood by, some laughing, as several hundred people crowded in on a convoy of some 400 cars near Sisak, 25 miles southeast of Zagreb on the road toward the Serbian border. Children, some as young as 10, threw bricks through car windows.
More than 100,000 Serbs are on the move across rough, rural terrain after a lightning Croat offensive retook land seized by rebel Serbs in a 1991 war. Convoys began moving Wednesday after the United Nations brokered a truce between the Croatian army and the Serbs.
Nica Melikovic, 34, reached into a car whose door already had been ripped off and spat in the face of the Serb driver. “That’s what I think of you!” he said.
The refugees cowered in their cars. One woman, blood streaming down her face, tried to shield a baby from flying glass and bricks.
It was unclear how many people were hurt as they crept through the gantlet, but dozens had bloodied faces. U.N. spokeswoman Leah Melnick said there were many reports of Serb refugees attempting suicide.
“These people are angry,” a policeman said of his fellow Croats as he watched from the side of the road. He refused to give his name. “We have to let them do this. You should be thankful they don’t do more.”
At one point, a few policemen made half-hearted attempts to stop the violence, and two truckloads of soldiers were later deployed to protect the convoys through the night.
But they could not stop the attacks. As the convoy temporarily stalled, men and boys dragged Serb men from cars and beat them. One man was beaten in the face, stomach and genitals until police pulled him, bleeding, to an ambulance.
One Croat broke windshields with a big rock. He held back when a car of Serbian Orthodox nuns approached, but the Croat crowd taunted him for being weak. Bystanders then pelted the car with stones, hitting at least one nun.
“Many of them are military men, and yet we are allowing them to go,” Srdjan Panezic, a 36-year-old Croat, said of the passing refugees. “You saw what they did to us - they burned down our houses.”
Croatia seceded from Serb-led Yugoslavia in 1991, and rebel Serbs in Croatia fought a six-month war that claimed a third of Croatia’s territory and drove hundreds of thousands of Croats from their homes. The Croats’ anger reflected bitterness over the war, and over the four years of uneasy truce that followed.
“It’s all very sad,” said Rada Toncevic, a Croat woman from Sisak. But, she said, “Croatia will be better with them gone.”
The refugees had been trapped south of Zagreb for days by fighting, but Wednesday’s cease-fire granted them safe passage to Serbia, the main part of what’s left of Yugoslavia.
The agreement also called for an end to the fighting in the last remaining Serb-held areas of Croatia. The Serbs agreed to turn over their heavy weapons to the United Nations.
U.N. escorts were to accompany the refugees, but Croatia later reneged on that part of the deal, refusing to let peacekeepers protect the Serbs, U.N. officials said.
Concern for the refugees’ safety was heightened by reports of atrocities over the last several days.
The United Nations said it was investigating at least three cases in which the Croatian army or its allies from the Muslim-led Bosnian army attacked Serb civilians.
Melnick said a Danish peacekeeper had seen soldiers haul five elderly and handicapped Serbs out of a school in the border town of Dvor on Tuesday, then kill them. She did not know which army the soldiers were with.
Yasushi Akashi, the top U.N. official for the former Yugoslavia, had earlier charged that Bosnian army soldiers had executed Serbs, including one in a wheelchair and others who were mentally retarded.
Asked to respond to the allegations, Bosnian Foreign Minister Muhamed Sacirbey told Associated Press Television, “Let them confirm it first.”
Another U.N. spokeswoman, Maj. Rita LePage, said an investigation was under way into a bombing Tuesday that may have targeted civilians near Dvor, where Croat soldiers raised their flag Wednesday after fierce fighting.
She said two MiG-21s dropped four bombs. She could not confirm that they were Croatian jets, but two MiG-21s, laden with weapons, were seen leaving Zagreb eight minutes before the attack. Dvor is about an eight-minute flight away.