Southland Serbs, Croats Reignite Hatreds : Ethnicity: The civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has shattered the relative calm among the two groups that have assimilated into a new land.
The longshoreman and the scientist have everything in common and nothing in common. They both came to Southern California from Yugoslavia, but one is a Croat and the other is a Serb. They speak the same language but read a different alphabet. They pray to the same Jesus Christ but belong to rival denominations. They love roasted lamb but would feel awkward sitting down at the same table.
Until recently, those differences were little more than cultural kinks in a world 7,000 miles from their birthplace. But as the bloody ethnic war between Serbs and Croats escalates in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina the things that separate these two men have eclipsed the things that bind them.
The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has come to Los Angeles, but not in fits of violence or vandalism as it has in Chicago and other ethnic pockets throughout the country. Here it is a war of words, a duel of slights, a boiling up of a thousand years of ethnic hatred.
A Serbian merchant asks police to tap her phone, claiming a Croatian woman has threatened to bomb her Long Beach business. A retired Croatian fisherman refuses to drink with a longtime Serbian friend, whose countrymen he now considers murderers. A Serb in Studio City is afraid that he will be killed if he goes to his dentist in San Pedro, a Croatian enclave.
“There is no good Serb ever lived,” Joe Ivcevic, the longshoreman, thundered as he drank coffee and smoked cigarettes along the docks of San Pedro.
“It is like with a husband and wife, when they come to the point where one of them goes mad and wants to kill the other,” said Dragoljub Djurkovic, the scientist, as he pondered returning to the old country to fight the Croats.
The bad blood between Serbs and Croats on the Balkan Peninsula goes back a millennium. But in Southern California the two communities have lived in relative calm since they arrived at the turn of the century. The first immigrants fleeing the Austro-Hungarian empire came to Los Angeles Harbor and what is now Los Angeles’ Eastside.
For all the yelling and name-calling in recent times, Serbs and Croats here tend to share a common profile: many are successful business people, heavy smokers who enjoy plum brandy and a night of dancing. They are parents who seldom divorce, pay off their mortgages, put their children through college and attend church regularly. They are patriotic, conservative and Republican--albeit lately disillusioned with President Bush’s handling of the war in Bosnia.
Serbs here boast of their assimilation. They number about 30,000 in Southern California, but there is no Little Belgrade, no Serbian ghetto, no Serbian restaurant row. The area’s largest Serbian Orthodox church--St. Steven’s in Alhambra--provides lunch after services each Sunday to accommodate congregants from as far away as Santa Barbara and Palm Springs.
While many of the region’s 100,000 Croats also settled throughout Southern California, those who had made their living fishing on the Dalmatian Coast of the Adriatic Sea were drawn to the port. Their migration made San Pedro and the harbor area one of the largest Croatian communities in the country, 30,000 strong.
Elderly women order meat and fish in Serbo-Croatian from the Sunshine Market on Pacific Avenue. Their native language is taught at Mary Star of the Sea, one of the community’s two high schools. The town’s honorary mayor is a Croatian gas station owner.
Although they occasionally dance together at picnics and shake hands over business deals, Serbs and Croats lead mostly separate lives here.
The tuna went south to San Diego years ago and San Pedro’s fishing industry went with it. But some of the old Croatian fishermen still assemble outside a bakery on the harbor front. They are hollering in their native language, arms flailing, keys slamming hard on a white plastic table.
Had anyone asked them their nationality two years ago, they would have proudly declared it Yugoslav. Today the word is vile. They are trying to find the money to blast it off the front of the cinder-block social club they built in 1935.
“No more Yugoslav!” one of them booms. “Today, only Croatia.”
All that is left of the fractured Yugoslavia are the republics of Montenegro and Serbia, Croatia’s mortal enemy in the raging civil war. If the bloodshed abroad has splintered the motherland, it has oddly unified thousands of Croatians in San Pedro, who have for years been quarreling among themselves.
What divided them was their very name: Those loyal to Belgrade called themselves Slavs. Those loyal to an independent Croatia, most of them younger refugees who escaped Communism after World War II, called themselves Croats.
When the Croatian soccer team played the Yugoslav team on Daniel Field in San Pedro several years ago, there was a riot. When a defiant Croatian-American Club sprouted up just blocks away from the decades-old Yugoslav Club, friendships suffered. When Marijan Dusevic decided to name his business Croatian Construction, he said it cost him thousands of dollars in Slav patronage.
The rift ran deeper than semantics. Communists in Yugoslavia made it a crime to sing a Croatian song or fly a Croatian flag. The government gave the Serbs the best jobs and the biggest apartments, the Croats contend.
When they came to San Pedro, their struggle for identity came with them. Informants were said to roam the streets of town, reporting back to military police in Yugoslavia anyone who publicly identified with Croatia. Croats say they were not welcome at the Starkist cannery, for years one of San Pedro’s biggest employers, because it was run by a self-proclaimed Yugoslav.
But nothing minimizes domestic quarrels like an international catastrophe. The atrocities abroad have made the splintered San Pedro community one, and the signs are quite tangible.
The Yugoslav Club recently changed its name to the Dalmatian Club; hardly anyone wanted to hold a wedding reception at a hall branded Yugoslav. Attendance at the annual Croatian picnic is said to have swelled as former Slavs reclaim their Croatian roots. Newspaper obituaries that once listed the deceased as born in Yugoslavia now say born in Croatia.
The melody came from World War I, the pining of a Serbian soldier far from home, burdened with an aching heart. No one was certain of the words, so the quintet stuck strictly to the music. Lirissa Kowalyk played the bass. Stephen Lovrenksy and Thomas Warren strummed the guitar. Crystal Warren and Novica Bozunovich plucked banjo-like folk instruments that had belonged to their parents.
“It is called ‘Over There, Far Away,’ so think about what it means!” chided instructor Lisa Simikic as the musicians, none beyond the seventh grade, broke into a much too robust rendition. “You are missing your home,” she lulled. “Far away. Gently. A little bit slowly.”
Soon, the melancholy tune hung heavy in the Spartan practice room, its sad vibrato wailing like a homesick warrior. Novica, his bare legs straddling a green plastic chair, grinned with aplomb.
“I’d rather play Serbian music than heavy metal,” the Culver City 12-year-old announced. “It is tradition.”
It is the kind of talk they like at St. Steven’s Church in Alhambra, the closest thing to a cultural center for many Serbs here. Dispersed across five counties that together rival Serbia in size, Serbs in the Los Angeles area have sought community in their faith. Many attend Eastern Orthodox churches closer to home, but for several thousand, Sunday means a half-day outing to St. Steven’s or one of three smaller Serbian churches in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys.
Choir members learn Slavic songs, dance groups traditional “kolo” steps and musicians the melodies of their ancestors. Several hundred children attend church camp in the Sierra each summer. Language, history and, of course, religion classes are available, too. “I learned Serbian growing up, and I’m teaching my children the same,” said one young mother from Alta Loma, scolding her little boy in English and Serbo-Croatian as he trampled a church flower bed.
For some, the weekly pilgrimage has more cultural than religious meaning. “It just makes me feel good, with all that tradition,” one American-born Serb confessed. For others, church attendance has been a statement of defiance to a far-away government that for decades restricted religious practices, confiscated church property and imprisoned outspoken clergy.
That there are three Serbian churches clustered in the east San Gabriel Valley reflects how embroiled immigrant Serbs have remained in the religious and political turmoil back home. In the 1940s, the area’s only Serbian church split over the rise of Marshal Josip Broz Tito and the advent of Communism in Yugoslavia.
Two decades later, another fracture occurred, again over events in Yugoslavia. Some Serbs joined a worldwide rebellion against the Serbian Orthodox patriarch in Belgrade over fears the mother church was being controlled by Tito.
If there is any silver lining for local Serbs in the ongoing turmoil, it has been the reconciliation of these churches. A new patriarch is in place, and the dissident congregations here have been reunited. Serbs talk optimistically of a “spiritual awakening” among their people.
Most evenings at 10, Croats gather around a shortwave radio at a San Pedro social club to listen to news from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the latest battleground in the civil war. On Sundays across town in the San Gabriel Valley, Serbs trade information about relatives and friends over a meal at church dining halls.
The news for either side is almost never good. A cousin’s arm was blown off yesterday. An aunt was raped by soldiers last week. A sister has not been heard from since last month. A father who survived a bombing raid was reduced to tears because he had no socks.
The victims come from both sides, but the international community has almost unanimously fingered Serbia as the villain. Assuming the role of international pariah has not come easy for Serbs in Southern California. They talk of betrayal, of their homeland’s long friendship with the United States and Western Europe, of Serbian peasants who “courageously” resisted Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia.
“Serbian people have always felt their friend is America,” one Serb immigrant offered, his voice heavy with sadness.
The ridicule has taken its toll here. A lawyer of Serbian descent in Riverside has sought psychological counseling. A Serb construction worker who emigrated in the 1960s worries that he will be rounded up and held in a detention camp as were Japanese-Americans in World War II.
Serbs here argue that the media bear much of the blame, sending back reports of death camps that they claim do not exist and ignoring atrocities by Croats. The highest-ranking Serbian Orthodox priest in the West says he has refused for eight months to read the Los Angeles Times or watch CNN. He likened one Times war correspondent to serial killer Richard Ramirez.
“We have been berated as a people by the press,” the Rev. Dennis Pavichevich said. “It has caused many of our people trauma.”
Local Croats also complain of unfair media coverage, distorted facts and a press corps slow to recognize the magnitude of the Serbian-led devastation in their homeland.
But the media are not the issue, they say; reports of Serbian aggression are real.
“I would eat the guts of a Serb,” one retired fisherman said.
Other Croats are more forgiving: “I don’t hate those people. Not all Serbs are bad people,” a construction worker said.
To trace the source of such hatred is to untangle 13 centuries of history, an intricate web spun with religious animosities, territorial disputes and cultural one-upmanship. Modern Serbs and Croats here sit around their respective kitchen tables sipping Turkish coffees and belaboring the historical ledger--”whenever we are awake,” one man says. They cannot seem to agree on the past, but they cannot seem to forget it, either.
Whatever the beginning, for many moderate Serbs and Croats in Southern California, it is time for the end.
“These are old scores,” said Bill Dorich, a first-generation Serbian who lives on the Westside. “People will pick up a gun because of their mother, or sister or brother. That has to stop. We can’t keep fighting this generation after generation after generation.”
“I won’t defend one side and accuse the other,” said Steve Bubalo, a Croatian businessman born in Bosnia-Herzegovina who lives in the Hollywood Hills. “Whatever happened over the centuries, we have to forget the past and go for the better future.”
Still, the rage occasionally spills into other crowded American cities, where pockets of Serbs and Croats tensely coexist.
A Serbian monastery near Chicago was defaced with anti-Serbian vulgarities, while a Croatian cultural center was spattered with hate slogans. In Cleveland, ethnic soccer matches were canceled because of violence during games. Tires were punctured in New York City.
Here the anger pours out in venomous accusations and angry literature. The vitriol grew worse with recent news reports about detention camps and alleged genocide, but it had taken hold long ago as the first shots were fired in the bloody civil war.
When the Serbian Orthodox Diocese of Western America held a conference last fall commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust in the Balkans, a church publication superimposed a Nazi swastika on a Croatian flag. For months, literature and videotapes imported from Belgrade have circulated in Southern California. They depict gruesome scenes of maggot-infested bodies and brutally murdered children, all alleged victims of Croatian violence.
A publication by the Croatian National Foundation in Los Angeles features a child paralyzed by a Serb bullet, a Croatian family grieving over the casket of a relative, and a crucifix “riddled with bullets by Serbian troops.” In San Pedro, picket signs protesting Serbian terror line the walls of the Croatian hall, a place reserved in better times for wedding receptions.
That police report no violent clashes between Serbs and Croats in the area may be more a function of Southern California’s sprawling landscape than of self-restraint.
Also, local Serbs and Croats say, Balkan people in Southern California regard themselves first as Americans. Many were born here and know no other home. Others, once desperate refugees, struggled and found the American Dream. Some are decorated Vietnam War veterans. For all their ethnic pride and love of tradition, most say they would not live anywhere else.
With no end to the Balkan bloodshed in sight, a love of country--this country--may be all they share.
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