The wait to return home for Borislav Belsic lasted almost four years. In that time, he lost an eye and most of a leg. When he reached his doorstep, he barely found a roof overhead.
But Belsic and a handful of other Croats trickling into this newly recaptured town Monday were not complaining. They were home, after all, something they could only dream about just a few days ago.
"I was the first one here," Belsic boasted, flashing a toothless jack-o'-lantern smile. "I would have killed myself if they didn't let me come. . . . Although I am an invalid, I am doing all of my duties."
Belsic is a colonel in the Croatian army, which after three days of combat wrested this once-prosperous meat-processing town from the rebel Krajina Serbs. There are no official casualty counts, but combatants described fierce fighting. The road into town is littered with Croatian tanks and armored vehicles; some nationalist Serbs were believed to be still holed up in the nearby hills.
The town, much like Belsic's two-story downtown house, is largely in ruins. Many buildings that survived the military onslaught have been ransacked, vandalized and looted. Others were never repaired after heavy fighting in September, 1991, when the Serbs claimed Petrinja as a northern outpost in their short-lived breakaway republic.
"The battles were just terrible," said Domagoj Bernic, 28, a medical student who was among the thousands of Croatian soldiers mobilized for the weekend offensive. "We didn't move forward for two days. On the third day, we literally walked into town, with our commanders in the front. A few high officers were killed, but it gave high morale to the others to carry on."
The shelves in the tiny general store on the ground floor of Belsic's house were still stocked with tomato sauce, but almost everything else had been wrecked beyond recognition.
There had been a fire. And an explosion. Snapshots of people Belsic did not know--four smiling women sitting on a couch--were strewn across the floor. Placards promoting Krajina Serb elections were stashed in a side hall. Belsic passed them out to friends, who waved them mockingly and belly-laughed like college fraternity brothers partying after a big football game.
"This here is the result of our victory," exclaimed Belsic, 57, a local politician and shopkeeper who lost his eye and lower leg in a land-mine explosion three years ago. "It is the fruit of our dream."
His friends cheered.
For the triumphant Croats, the mood Monday was like nothing they had known before. They had never wanted something so badly and gotten it. The same was true across most of the Krajina region, including Knin, the rebel headquarters, where Croatian soldiers sang songs, downed alcohol and looted stores in downtown streets, according to pool reports from a U.N.-organized media tour there.
But there was also an eerie, ghost-town feeling to the celebrations. In Knin, about 800 terrified Serbian refugees, mostly women, children and the elderly, have taken refuge at a local U.N. compound, too confused and afraid to know where to go. More than 30,000 of their former neighbors have joined a column of desperate refugees headed for Bosnia-Herzegovina or, eventually, Serbia, leaving Knin largely deserted.
Some of those at the U.N. compound told reporters and U.N. visitors that they had been treated well by Croatian soldiers. Others spoke of indiscriminate killings. One woman said she was safely escorted to the U.N. camp by a Croatian soldier, who later took her back to the village to search for her missing sister. She found her sister, but also the bodies of seven relatives who had been killed.
"Two soldiers were fair, but the others weren't," she said.
In Petrinja, streets were also empty, except for soldiers, police and the few residents who managed to talk their way past a chain of checkpoints. Reporters were chided by Croatian authorities for asking about looting--the plate-glass windows in most shops had been shattered and cash registers toppled--and the well-being of nearby Danish peacekeepers who had come under attack by Croatian forces. The questions detracted from the glory of the Croatian victory, they said.
Hundreds of Serbs, mostly elderly people who were too weak or afraid to flee over the weekend, were taken by bus to neighboring Sisak, a town that escaped the brunt of the violence.
At least one Serbian woman, who had hidden with nine others in a basement, stayed behind. She shuffled through the streets, speaking more harshly of her departed Serbian neighbors than of her Croatian conquerors, perhaps owing to an instinct for survival.
"I couldn't wait to be liberated. I never thought this day would come," said a tearful Anka Mucilovic, 70, as Bernic, the medical student turned soldier, stood at her side. He wrapped his arm around the old woman and tenderly promised her that she would be safe.
But such assurances were unlikely for most Petrinja Serbs, thousands of whom fled ahead of the advancing Croatian soldiers in such a hurry that they simply dropped what they were doing. The Croatian government has said they are welcome to return, but, in fact, no one wants them to.
"They are all afraid because the number of people like me who have a clean soul is unbelievably small," Mucilovic said of her fellow Serbs. "They are not coming back."
Two dozen diapers hung on a clothesline outside one abandoned apartment. Plates of boiled potatoes and stewed meat, with the next spoonful buried in gravy, sat on a cluttered dining counter. At a Serbian church, set up in the lobby of a hotel, trays of beeswax candles were neatly laid out--prices clearly marked--and a prayer book and silver crucifix carefully arranged on the altar. The final assault had come Sunday morning.
The hungry wail of kittens could be heard, and a handful of well-tended vegetable gardens were flush with cabbage and tomatoes needing to be picked. One returning Croat said he found his home intact, with more creature comforts than when he left it in 1991.
Tomo Bernic, a traffic dispatcher, sat in the shade of a towering evergreen in his back yard, joined by three large pigs and a tractor. He never had had a tractor, nor pigs for that matter. Inside, he said, the television was a better model than when he fled in a blaze of gunfire four years ago.
Down the street, the owners of two houses were away, but they left handwritten appeals on the front door to the rush of returning neighbors expected over the next few days. "Please Don't Touch. This Is a Croatian House," the notes said.
Belsic, the army colonel, was leaving nothing to chance, even with his enemies flushed out of town. He secured the metal gates across his front door, and stationed a Croatian sentry nearby.