COLUMN ONE : Serbs Hide From Their Heritage : The Yugoslav breakup left ethnic Serbs living in Croatia an oppressed minority. While the constitution guarantees their rights, a reality of hatred and racism is driving many away.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Anna selects fairy tales for her nursery school class in Croatia these days, she knows that those penned by Serbs are off limits. And when some of her 25 pupils draw pictures of apes and say, "This is a Serb," or call each other "ugly Serb" on the playground, she knows to keep her mouth shut.

Her family has lived here, in the country now called Croatia, for 800 years. She is a citizen of Croatia. She is also a Serb, holding on to her job only because no one, aside from her sympathetic principal, knows that.

"None of the kids' parents even suspect," she said recently, pouring sweet black coffee for a visitor to her home. She insists on speaking behind a pseudonym, knowing that the Croatian authorities carefully read dispatches in foreign newspapers. "My principal says she won't be able to protect my job if anyone finds out."

Still, this 36-year-old mother of two finds it difficult to hold her tongue and impossible to be optimistic about her family's future in Croatia.

"When this kind of hatred is planted in kids this young, I don't see how it will ever end," she said.

The Croatian state that emerged brom the former Yugoslav federation, and was recognized as a sovereign nation three years ago, has a state-of-the-art constitution firmly guaranteeing the rights of all minorities, including Serbs.

But the law is not enforced, and the lives of Serbs here are a daily list of collective and personal insults, job dismissals, schoolyard harassment, ostracism from neighbors, threatening telephone calls, citizenship hassles and forced evictions.

In a Zagreb restaurant on a recent evening, a male chorus employed by the management loudly serenaded diners with anti-Serb songs dating from World War II, when a short-lived Croatian government collaborated with the Nazis and killed tens of thousands of Serbs. The music continued the entire evening, with some patrons pausing from their plates of roasted meats to join in.

"It is not possible to be a Serb and not be harassed here," said Ivan Cicak, president of the Zagreb office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights. Cicak himself is a onetime Croatian nationalist who now supports the Serbian minority.

"We can perhaps understand the anger of some Croats toward Serbs, but it gives no one the right to oppress them," he said. "We Croats were fighting for a democratic state during the war, not a state of hatred or racism."

Complicating that legacy of hatred, for which both sides share responsibility in a long and tortured history, is the fact that Serbs and Croats, as ethnic groups, are not really very different.

It is rarely possible, for example, for Croats and Serbs to tell each other apart by appearance alone. They speak the same language, known as Serbo-Croatian, and even share many of the same regional dialects, though Serbs write in the Cyrillic alphabet while Croats use the Roman alphabet.

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But the main difference is that since the 11th Century, Croats have been Roman Catholic and Serbs have been Orthodox Christian. Also, many, though not all, names are recognizably Croatian or Serbian.

And, of course, they've been on opposing sides of the bloody wars spawned by the breakup of the former Yugoslav federation.

After the 1991 Serbo-Croatian war, the Serbs made up 12% of government-controlled Croatia, a proportion about equal, for example, to the percentage of African Americans in the United States. But 300,000 Serbs have fled, leaving only 150,000.

Those who have remained are sometimes called "loyal Serbs," to distinguish them from the 300,000 rebel Serbs who hold a mountainous stretch of Croatian territory known as the Krajina, where it is the Serbs who have been the dominant ethnic group.

The Serbs in Croatia have lived for generations with a Croatian majority, albeit in a country--the old Yugoslavia--in which Serbs were the dominant political power.

Now, though, most of the Serbs in Croatia are or would like to be Croatian citizens. But the Croatian government, under President Franjo Tudjman, a 72-year-old war hero, has not exactly welcomed them.

Under the constitution, Serbs are among the minorities guaranteed representation, proportionate to their numbers, in government, the judicial system and state enterprises.

In one house of Parliament, 12% of the members are Serbs. But elsewhere, they are rare.

Only one of Tudjman's 20 Cabinet ministers is a Serb, and he does not have any responsibilities.

Serbs also feel the sting of discrimination in other walks of life, in ways subtle as well as overt.

Job applicants must identify their ethnic group, and many employers won't hire Serbs. Some Serbs have changed their names and lied to get jobs.

The government-influenced media, in what most Serbs consider a propaganda offensive, either vilify them or run stories showing how happy they are to be living in Croatia. A typical front-page headline recently read: "Serbs Be Damned--Wherever You Are."

Even Tudjman, when he addresses the nation, begins, "Dear Croatians and other citizens of Croatia. . . ."

And he has defended the eviction of Serbs from their homes by saying they were to blame for the military actions and anti-Croat atrocities of Serbs elsewhere, particularly in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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To the dismay of many Serbs here, the government has renamed streets in honor of leaders of the Ustashi, the collaborationist Croatian regime that killed Serbs and put others in concentration camps during the early 1940s.

An intersection long known as the Square of the Victims of Fascism, in honor of those Serbs slain during World War II, has been renamed the Square of Croatian Greats.

The new currency introduced last summer is called the kuna, the same name given to the currency during the Ustashi regime, and the Croatian flag bears a checkerboard reminder of that regime's symbol.

When asked about its failure to protect Serbian rights here, the Croatian government says it will start honoring the constitutional guarantees as soon as rebel Serbs in the Krajina region return that territory to Croatia.

But in the Krajina, rebel Serbs cite the oppression of minority Serbs in Croatia as one of the many reasons they could never agree to live under a Croatian government.

Tudjman has decided to kick out the 12,000 U.N. troops providing a buffer zone between Croatia and the Krajina, hoping that will end the stalemate. World leaders say it will probably mean another war.

The plight of Anna's family is emblematic of the problems Serbs face in Croatia.

She and her husband, a laborer in Zagreb, live with their two sons, ages 11 and 18, in a two-story house they built in this rural suburb seven years ago.

Out front, they have planted bright flowers, and in the back the soil has been turned, ready for another spring planting of vegetables for the table.

But the family recently decided to leave Croatia and move to what remains of Yugoslavia, which is still run by a Serbian government and is home to many refugees from Croatia.

"We don't have any job there, and we're well aware we'll have a lower living standard," Anna said. "But it will be better for the children. Having things is not as important as the psychological well-being of our children."

Both of the couple's sons have found it difficult here in recent years. At first, the couple did not tell their youngest that he was a Serb. And they always left blank the space requesting ethnic identity on his school forms.

But the boy's teacher was suspicious, and she began questioning the youngster about the names of his grandparents, who have more identifiable Serbian names.

When she learned the truth, the teacher herself filled in the blank spot on the boy's school forms and, according to Anna, urged the other children not to play with him.

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The family is worried that the father and oldest son will be drafted.

As Croatia prepares for war with the Krajina Serbs, more and more "loyal Serbs" are being visited by military police, often in the middle of the night. Some are ordered into the service immediately, where they are usually given the most menial or dangerous tasks.

Of the 25 children in Anna's nursery school class, six who were Serbs have moved away; only one Serb remains.

And her job seems less sure every day. The school principal, a Croat married to a Serb, has been supportive. When parents ask if she has "any of them" on the teaching staff, the principal lies.

"I'm just warning you, don't tell anyone you are a Serb," the principal has told Anna. "Times are hard, and you are lucky to have this job."

So far, Anna has been protected by her first name, which is not readily identifiable as a Serbian name.

Now she and her husband are quietly trying to find a buyer for their house, which is worth about $100,000. When they first put it on the market, the best offer they got was $30,000 from a Croat who said: "Go ahead. Move. You'll be lucky if you get a cent for this house."

"As a Serb here, there's no chance to sell a house for a real price," Anna said.

So the couple placed an advertisement in newspapers in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, offering to trade their house for one in Yugoslavia, where Serbs are the majority. Their aim was to attract Croats who still have parents or family in Yugoslavia and want to move them here.

But the advertisement elicited only anonymous phone calls.

"You think you'll make a deal," one caller seethed. "No way. We'll blow up your house first."

All that has made them more determined to move.

"The circumstances are forcing us," Anna said. "I was born here, and I don't want to move. But I have no hope that the situation will improve."

Among Serbs who intend to stay, some have changed their names, hoping to hide their ethnic roots. Others keep to themselves, hoping to keep their jobs and their houses and avoid contact with racist Croats until the Balkan conflicts are resolved.

A few Serbs in Croatia are staying on principle, determined to fight for their rights, but it is an uphill fight.

Veselin Pejnovic, one of the Serbs in Parliament, sits on 16 separate commissions on human rights, which he admits are mostly ineffectual bodies that only give the impression of movement on the issue of minority rights.

"It's a joke, really," he said recently.

"This government has demonized Serbs for years and years," Pejnovic said. "What it needs to do now is just declare that Serbs are full-fledged citizens and that it is in the Croatian national interest that we remain here."

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Among the most dogged fighters for Serbian political rights in Croatia is Milorad Pupovac, a professor of linguistics and head of the Serbian Democratic Forum.

"I know this is a young country, and ethnic Croatians need some freedom to express the nationhood they've been wanting for centuries," Pupovac said. "But I expect more sensitivity to the fact that Croatia is not only inhabited by ethnic Croats. How can I be loyal to an authority that does not recognize me as a full-fledged citizen?"

His job is complicated by tha actions of Serbs elsewhere.

Fresh still are the memories of the Bosnian Serbs and their concentration camps and the Krajina Serbs who killed thousands of innocent Croatian women and children as they subjugated the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar.

Of course, no side in the Balkan war can claim to have clean hands.

"Serbs have their responsibility in this war. I'd be the last to deny it," Pupovac said. "But just because a person was born a Serb doesn't make him responsible."

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