In an organized drive to ensure Serbia's hold on territory seized from Croatia, Serbian gunmen have been rounding up Croats, Slovaks and Hungarians at night, forcing them to sign over all property and dumping them in a dangerous no man's land to make their way across minefields in the dark.
U.N. officials report at least 400 cases of forced expulsions from Serbian-held eastern Croatia last month, including some in which U.N. troops were enlisted as accomplices.
The systematic routing of non-Serbs from the U.N.-protected area of eastern Croatia, called Sector E, has exposed the limitations of U.N. intervention, with the U.N. mission locally now at full strength.
"It's embarrassing. They've done it right under our noses," said one U.N. official, recounting an incident two weeks ago in which peacekeepers were pressed into driving two busloads of the banished across enemy lines.
Although most of the 14,000 U.N. troops assigned to Croatia are now in place, they are empowered only to observe local authorities' handling of civilian matters. Their mandate does not allow them to intervene to stop human rights violations such as the forcible displacement of civilian populations. When they witness such violations, they can do little more than make official protests that often fall on deaf ears.
In a letter to the Serbian leadership in Belgrade, the chief of the civilian contingent of the U.N. mission, Cedric Thornberry, accused Serbian irregulars of "coercion, intimidation, the destruction of property and . . . forced expulsions."
U.N. Undersecretary General Marrack Goulding, on a peace mission to the former Yugoslav federation this week, said he is concerned about the expulsions and raised that problem, as well as the continued violence in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in meetings Thursday with Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Yugoslavia's then-Defense Minister Blagoje Adzic--who resigned a day later.
Asked if he was given assurances that the Belgrade leadership would work to prevent further aggression against civilians, Goulding replied, "In a situation like this where nobody will admit responsibility for things you want stopped, you don't get clear yeses and noes."
Most of the recent expulsions have occurred late at night, during a dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed by the Serbian-led army that continues to control the U.N.-protected areas despite the deployment of the monitors.
U.N. officials decline to publicly accuse local Serbian authorities of carrying out the expulsions, but they argue privately that the incidents are too systematic and well organized to be the random acts of nationalist vigilantes.
"Everything is very well prepared and documented. The people to be put on buses are on a list of known Croat and non-Serb households, with the exact addresses and numbers of family members," said one U.N. source who did not want to be identified for fear of further weakening his influence with local Serbs.
Col. Alexander Khromchenkov, commander of the easternmost of Croatia's three U.N.-protected areas, said he ordered night patrolling throughout Sector E two weeks ago, when he learned of the expulsions.
"But now they have simply changed their tactics," the Russian officer complained from his headquarters in Erdut. "They used to collect people from one place in big buses, which were easy to see. Now they use smaller vehicles and take people two, three, maybe five at a time, and from different areas."
Invoking the peacekeepers' orders to remain impartial amid the ethnic conflict, Khromchenkov said he would not speculate about who was organizing the late-night raids.
Khromchenkov said he was summoned to the scene of a massive roundup in late April but arrived too late to intervene.
In other cases, however, the U.N. presence has done nothing to spare people from eviction.
U.N. civilian affairs officers worked out an agreement with local Serbian authorities that they would be called to observe mass migrations, which the Serbs insisted were voluntary.
When U.N. forces were notified of an evacuation under way in the town of Marinci on April 20, a team was sent out to try to determine whether the people were leaving voluntarily. Elderly Croats were found "clinging to doorknobs, crying and generally looking very frightened," the U.N. official recalled.
A Serbian interpreter accompanying the U.N. observers, none of whom spoke Serbo-Croatian, told the troops the people all confirmed that they were leaving willingly.
Blue-helmeted U.N. troops followed the bus to a checkpoint just south of Osijek, where the expelled people were handed over to Croatian forces for escort through the heavily mined front line and eventual transfer to refugee centers.
Minutes later, the U.N. official said, two more busloads from the town of Tenja arrived, and drunken Serbian gunmen planned simply to dump the refugees at the pitch-black minefield with orders to make their way to the Croatian side.
Expulsions may be more effectively prevented once U.N. troops take over security in the deployment areas, said Lt. Col. Jean-Pierre Stevelinck, Sector E's Belgian chief of staff. But he said no one knows when that transfer of authority will take place.
A May 4 deadline for withdrawal of the Yugoslav army has passed with no indication that the 36,000-plus federal troops in Sector E plan to leave.
"All the JNA (Yugoslav army) has said is that they are not ready to leave yet," said Capt. Pal Mann of the Canadian unit. "The whole idea of the mission is to make the (deployment areas) a demilitarized zone, to create a buffer area. But today there is still no buffer area, and there are daily cease-fire violations."
Mann's engineering unit has no responsibility for civilian matters, like the expulsions aimed at opening up housing for resettlement of Serbian refugees. But he said the incidents are nevertheless damaging to morale.
Jim Lubin, civilian affairs coordinator for Sector E, said peacekeepers have made some progress in deterring forced relocations by warning army officers that they will be held responsible if they allow marauding irregulars to harass civilians during their watch.
"I think we've stopped the expulsions from Ilok," Lubin said. "We have our own informants now who tell us when and where people are to be taken."
But the dwindling numbers of Slovaks and Croats living in this Danube River border town say they are frightened that they will soon follow in the steps of others forced from their homes.
"They told us they would take our house, but I told them I'm not leaving. Only when I'm dead will I leave this place," vowed Anica Ferenkovic, a 71-year-old peasant whose wrinkled mouth quivered with rage.
An elderly woman named Katarina said she and other Slovaks were afraid to tell the "blue helmets" of their plight.
"It's best not to talk about what is happening here," the old woman whispered, looking over her shoulder fearfully. "Just drive through this town and you will see the injustice."