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Croats Returning to Help Homeland

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It wasn’t politics but a sense of loss that brought Karmela Culjak home.

“Canada is a beautiful country, but something was missing in my life,” she said. “I was homesick. I can’t explain how I feel here--so happy, so looking forward to every day.”

As a nurse in a Zagreb-area crisis center, Culjak makes $300 a month, compared to the $1,800 a month she made in Vancouver as an immigrant from Croatia.

She found the good life she had sought in Canada--then she found Croatia again. Culjak is not alone. There are several hundred like her on the streets of this stressed Croatian capital today.

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They’ve worked in dozens of nations, but they have returned to a common heritage. They are Croatian-Americans, Croatian-Canadians and citizens from dozens of other countries who have returned to help a homeland some left as children or never saw at all.

Spurred by guilt for leaving in the first place and excited by the promise of forming a new country, Croats such as Ivanka Kuzmanovic are being drawn back.

“I’d clean toilets if it meant freeing someone to do something more important,” said Kuzmanovic, 50, a former Milwaukee high school teacher who worked as a translator here this summer. “There is a call to respond to.”

Government officials don’t know how many former emigres have now returned. Yet their presence is noticed. Australian accents can be detected in the halls of the government office buildings. Sweat shirts from Columbia University and Penn State are proper attire at the Ministry of Information. Canadians hold posts with the government.

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The Croatian Homeland Foundation estimates that at least 1,000 former immigrants have returned to Croatia from abroad.

Information Minister Branko Salaj worked as a businessman in Sweden and spent 40 years abroad before returning to Croatia. Coming back, he said, was almost as shocking as leaving.

“You get so rooted in another society,” he said. “It’s almost like immigrating again.”

Those who return, however, are sharing skills and demonstrating Western work habits in a republic accustomed to Communist rule.

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“In the former regime, very often people would not take responsibility. Instead, they would shift it to someone else,” Salaj said. “We remind this society what Western society is really like . . . and (help it) to realize what a democratic society is.”

Regardless of travel warnings by Western nations telling their citizens to avoid areas in Yugoslavia near the fighting, the stream of returnees continues. And despite a cease-fire, clashes continue between Croatian forces and Serbian irregulars.

“This is our last chance,” said a 22-year-old Chicagoan serving in the Croatian national guard. “If we go down, there’s nothing left of us.”

The guardsman, who declined to give his name, said he had left his unit on the Dalmatian coast in hopes of scavenging some equipment from guard forces in Zagreb. In Croatia, a rifle is considered an antitank weapon, he said.

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“We’re getting slaughtered out there,” he said. “It’s a sad scene.”

The son of Croatian parents and himself a U.S. Army veteran, the guardsman said it raises the morale of other troops to know that an American is fighting alongside them.

Other foreign nationals are also serving in the Croatian forces.

In the village of Nova Varos, Mario Katosic spoke calmly with his fatigue-clad comrades--though a Yugoslav army tank was positioned just 200 yards away. It seemed an odd place to find a 41-year-old executive secretary from Bolivia. “It’s not my specialty--to be a soldier,” he said.

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“If I live, then my wife and my daughter will come. They cried when I left. But they understand.”


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