Fiona Fox meets a woman who, like millions in the Balkans, is suffering simply for her ethnic origins
IT IS HARD to predict how a victim of war will look. but they should certainly look worse than Marija Kukavica. Even allowing for the recent trip to the hairdresser and the freshly applied make-up, this attractive, well dressed 50-year-old woman bears no scars from her terrible experiences. She looks ordinary. And indeed ordinary was exactly what Marija was until war exploded into her life 10 years ago and changed everything.
Now, because of war, this ordinary woman has an extraordinary and tragic story. She has lost her husband in the fighting, been forced to flee from her home twice and narrowly survived a Nato bomb. Now, living as a refugee in Serbia, her story is far from over.
Marija and her husband had lived a contented life in their comfortable home in the Krajena region of Croatia, home to most of Croatia's large Serbian population. But within months of the start of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Marija's husband was shot and wounded by Croat soldiers. He was badly disabled by the attack and died four years later, aged 41. Within weeks of his death Marija started out on her long journey as a refugee. Along with 250,000 other Serb civilians, she was forced to leave everything after the Croatian army regained control of the Krajena region from the Serb military in 1995. The exodus was the single largest act of ethnic cleansing of that war.
While Marija found safety in Serbia, there was no warm welcome in Belgrade, a city already reeling from the arrival of thousands of refugees and the effects of war. With his sights already fixed on a future conflict with Kosovo's majority Albanian population, Serbia's President Milosevic saw the opportunity to use this latest wave of refugees to improve the ratio of Serbs to Albanians. Marija and many others were redirected to Kosovo.
She stayed in Pristina, one of Kosovo's main towns, finding work as a waitress and making friends among other refugees. After losing everything in Krajena, she started to buy things her own bed, a small stove and some things to decorate her section of the wall ,iii a room shared with fivs,ther refugees. But even thinniited normality was to be short lived. In May last year, Marija's collective centre was hit in a Nato bombing raid. Marija woke up to find herself lying in a sea of glass. She smiles for the first time in her story to suggest that someone somewhere really wanted her to live the whole house was destroyed. Once again Marija Kukavica had lost everything.
Having survived the bombing, Marija went in search of her parents, themselves refugees in another part of Kosovo. They had survived the bombing, but as ethnic Albanian refugees began to return to Kosovo after the defeat of Serb forces, life became difficult for Serbs. Armed Albanians intent on revenge for Serb military terror began threatening and attacking Serb civilians and Marija found herself unable to return to Pristina, to her friends and the few belongings she had salvaged from the bombed-out centre. For the second time in five years, Marija arrived in Belgrade with nothing. Once again she stayed in a refugee centre, sharing a room with five other families, living on hand-outs from aid agencies.
Marija refuses to talk about how she feels because she goes to great efforts not to feel.
"I have to block any feelings or I would not survive," she says. "My life is terrible. I have nothing no husband, no home. I feel more ill every day.
"But I just have to live each day and try not to feel."
Marija has now found some temporary security in a home for single women run by the Belgrade-based Autonomous Women's Centre. With funding from Cafod, the centre runs two houses for refugees which provide them with pleasant surroundings. some privacy and a variety of projects enabling them to become more self sufficient. The houses are a hive of activity, with computer courses, weaving. gardening and legal advice on offer to the residents and to other single refugee women in the surrounding areas.
Marija is happy here but worries constantly about how long it will last. Long-term funding is not guaranteed and she still doesn't know how long she will be able to stay. Despite the fact that Serbia now has nearly one million refugees, the largest number the Balkans, aid agencies still struggle to raise enough to fund relief programmes. To the outside world. Serbia has become synonymous with ethnic cleansing. That many Serbs have become victims of this 20th-century weapon of war has often been accepted as an inevitable result of this pariah state's aggression. Journalist Melanie McDonagh recently responded to the murder of the notorious Serb Criminal Arkan by noting: "It is not possible to export despoliation and war without some of the moral corrosion returning to debilitate the state from which it came."
But all this is politics and that is something that Marija Kukavica has no interest in.
Yet her attempts to avoid politics are as doomed as her efforts to block her feelings. Having charted the horrors of the past 10 years without any emotion, she starts to weep when she contemplates the future. She feels that at 50 her life is over.
"I'm on my own now and it's too late to start again," she says. "My husband and I had built our lives hack in Croatia we had our land. our home, our belongings now everything has gone."
UNLIKE MANY others, Marija had managed to bring crucial papers from Croatia allowing her to register as a refugee and qualify for a pension.
But the papers and everything else she owns were in the room of the bombed-out refugee centre. Unable to even register for medical care without her papers, Marija recently spent five days and nights in Belgrade bus station desperately hying to get a bus back to Pristina to search for her papers.
But there were no buses going in that direction. Instead bus loads of terrified Serbs were arriving from Kosovo — all with terrible stories of revenge attacks and death threats from returning Albanians.
Allowing all refugees to return home was a central clause of the Dayton agreement that brought the last war to an end in 1995. But of the 250,000 Serbs who fled Krajina, only a few thousand have returned.
Undoubtedly some won't return because they fear revenge for taking part in attacks on Croats. But even for innocent civilians like Marija, returning is not an easy option.
Many have heard reports that their houses were destroyed or occupied by other families. Massive competition for jobs in an economy battered by war is exacerbated by tales of discrimination against Serbs in the new Croatia.
For the 200,000 Serbs recently displaced from Kosovo the prospects of return look equally grim. Those that stayed in Kosovo now live in Serb enclaves under 24-hour protection by UN forces. There are daily reports of ethnic violence, including a recent attack on a bus taking Serb children to school. Serb farmers are attacked as they work the land to eke out enough food to feed their families.
If the international community has largely turned its hack on the Serb victims of war, the Serbian government has done little better. Having dragged the country into successive conflicts over the past 10 years, Milosevic's government now dues its best to ignore the presence of the hundreds of thousands of refugees.
According to Boris Radovic, director of the International Aid Network, Cafod's partner in Serbia, the presence of the refugees is an unwelcome reminder of successive Serbian defeats.
"Our government continues to claim that the outcome of the war in Kosovo was a victory for Serbia," he says.
"The question they cannot answer is that if Serbia won the war. why can Serbs no longer live there? The refugees are not welcome in Serbia because they are living proof that Milosevic lost."
For Marija it would be enough to know that this place will still be home next year or even next month. But even that much security is beyond her grasp. As observers predict a fresh conflict between Serbia and Montenegro, the latest republic of Yugoslavia to seek more independence from Belgrade, it is possible that Marija's 10year hell is not over.
Fiona Fox is head of media relations at Cafod