Valley Family Is Torn by War in Balkan Homeland


His $580 May phone bill says it all: Zvonko Kutlesa may eat and sleep in Canoga Park, but his heart is in his war-torn homeland, the former Yugoslavia.

At $1.60 a minute, he talks longingly to his pregnant wife, who returned to Croatia five months ago with their two children to practice medicine near the front lines. Kutlesa, 38, desperately wants to join her.

This week, he had planned to close his small but thriving construction business and buy a one-way ticket home to help rebuild the damage wrought by the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.


He is not the only one.

Driven by ethnic pride and the demise of communism, about 2,000 of the more than half million people who identified themselves as Croatian in the 1990 U.S. census have returned to Croatia following its independence two years ago, the Croatian Embassy in Washington estimates.

But it turns out Kutlesa will face an even harder choice than returning to a country torn apart by Europe’s bloodiest civil war in half a century.

He will have to come back, leaving his family behind.

Kutlesa plans to return alone to Canoga Park in late June to earn money to support his extended family, including 15 Bosnian refugees who are planning to flee to Zagreb.

But determined to stay where she feels she is most needed, his wife, Vlasta, plans to continue working in a hospital in the Croatian city of Osijek, just 12 kilometers east of Serbian-held territory.

“I can’t even think of how I am going to feel alone,” Kutlesa says, sitting in his tiny, cluttered one-bedroom apartment on Independence Avenue while faxes documenting the incessant strife at home pile up on his desk. “These last months have been terrible . . . but my family comes first before myself. I have to be the one to stay here to make the money.”

Kutlesa’s plight offers a glimpse of the effect of the war on local residents from the former Yugoslavia. Since the fighting in Croatia broke out almost two years ago, the more than 50,000 Americans of Croatian and Serbian descent living in Southern California have been gripped by reports of battles 10,000 miles away.


Every Sunday at Serbian Orthodox churches in Sylmar and the San Gabriel Valley, for instance, parishioners grieve together for the loss of relatives who died that week in the war. And at St. Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Church in downtown Los Angeles, where Kutlesa worships, each Mass begins with a prayer for peace.

Such solemn concerns were far from Kutlesa’s mind when the husky, mustachioed Croat first visited Los Angeles with a group of other civil engineers five years ago. Eager to escape communism and be his own boss, Kutlesa, single then, returned to the United States three months after his first visit to live in Walnut with his best friend from college. In his pocket was $4,000 given to him by an aunt, who is among the Bosnian refugees he is now staying here to support.

“What she did for me . . . how can I turn my back?” Kutlesa says.

Like many immigrants, Kutlesa bought a car and attended night school to learn English. He moved to Canoga Park shortly after arriving to cut down on the commute to one of his construction jobs, and remained there after completing the work.

About 2 1/2 years ago, Kutlesa visited Croatia and married one of his college sweethearts, Vlasta, who had become a physician specializing in brain infections. She joined him in Canoga Park, bringing her 7-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

“Every time I call she asks when I am coming home,” Kutlesa says in a choked voice about his stepdaughter, Maja, who is now 9. “It is terribly lonely.”

The Kutlesas had another daughter 15 months ago, and their third child is due this summer. But their happiness began to sour after the Yugoslav republic of Croatia declared its independence from Serbia on June 25, 1991.


War broke out between Croatia and Serbia two days later. The conflict galvanized the Croatian-American community, including the Kutlesas, who participated in the massive assistance effort in which tons of food, clothing and medical supplies have been shipped to Croatia from the Port of Los Angeles.

Perhaps if there had been no war, Vlasta Kutlesa would have been satisfied to remain a homemaker while learning English and obtaining an American medical license. But Kutlesa and family friends say Vlasta felt torn between her duty to her family and her fledgling country.

She returned home Dec. 31 with the couple’s two children. Kutlesa intended to follow her at the end of May after finishing several construction jobs and helping organize World Trade Week, a Los Angeles business symposium containing seminars designed to promote trade in Central and Eastern Europe.

The Kutlesas agonized over their decision to return, weighing the loss of Kutlesa’s annual income of $40,000 and the threat of sniper bullets in Osijek against the love of their country.

In Osijek, Vlasta Kutlesa earns only $150 a month, a pittance by American standards, but three times as much as the average worker there, Kutlesa says.

“Things like TV, nice cars, it’s not life,” says Kutlesa, explaining one reason why he will return to the United States after his trip home.


Another key factor was the destruction of Kutlesa’s hometown of Prijedor in Bosnia, which fell to the Serbs last year.

“I raise up in a Catholic family, but we weren’t crazy religious,” Kutlesa said. “But when they dynamited the church in Prijedor in ethnic cleansing, you feel something so much inside. They destroyed my childhood. I can never go there again.”

In the end, Kutlesa’s patriotism prevailed, only to be foiled by the decline of the Croatian economy. The country’s biggest industry, tourism, brought in only $1 billion last year, compared to $6 billion before the war, a spokeswoman for the Croatian Embassy said. Without the $200 to $500 he wires home every month, his extended family might not survive, Kutlesa says.

Just last week, he had been making hectic arrangements to go home for good, finishing up a one-bedroom addition to a North Hollywood ranch house and giving away some of his possessions, including his 19-inch color TV.

Now, there is no need to rush.

When he boards the plane on May 31 for his visit home, he need only pack a small suitcase. As long as the civil war rages on, the price Kutlesa pays will be measured in loneliness.

“My place on earth is in Croatia. But I have to stay here.”