Eastern Slavonia back to Croatia's control
Walker, right, presented Sarinic with a gift during the ceremony
Country returns to its pre-war borders
January 15, 1998
Web posted at: 7:08 p.m. EST (0008 GMT)
VUKOVAR, Croatia (CNN) -- For the first time in more than six years, Croatia has control over all of its territory, after Eastern Slavonia was formally returned Thursday by the United Nations.
The area, adjacent to Yugoslavia, had been seized by ethnic Serb rebels shortly after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. It was turned over to U.N. control two years ago as part of the Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia.
While few thought the idea of peacefully reintegrating Eastern Slavonia into Croatia would work, the United Nations, with a team of 5,000 peacekeepers, was able to demilitarize the area, hold local elections and convince about 80 percent of the local Serb population to stay.
"What we have achieved clearly demonstrates that this region is an example of a successful peace operation," said Hrjoje Sarinic, a senior aide to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
William Walker, the former U.N. administrator for Eastern Slavonia, was on hand for the turnover ceremony, which featured exchanges of gifts and folk music. He said the United Nations "was proud to have played a part" and pledged future U.N. support for the peace process.
"Be in no doubt, while (the U.N. mission in Eastern Slavonia) is about to end, the international spotlight will continue to be on this region," he said.
Local Serb leader Vojislav Stanimirovic said Serbs in Eastern Slavonia would hold the Croatian government to its commitments to allow return of refugees, provide compensation for property losses and display "non-discriminatory attitudes to all citizens of Croatia, regardless of their ethnicity."
Region was site of bloody fighting
Thousands of Croats were driven from their homes after their town was captured by rebel Serbs
Eastern Slavonia's regional capital, Vukovar, was the site of some of the bloodiest fighting of the war between Croatian troops and Serb rebels. Many buildings in the city were reduced to rubble, and 10,000 people died in a three-month siege before it fell. More than 80,000 ethnic Croats were forced into exile.
The Serb rebels, backed by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, went on to seize almost a third of Croatia, nearly cutting the country in two. But in a surprise offensive in 1995, Croatian forces took back all of its lost territory, with the exception of Eastern Slavonia.
And when Yugoslavia did not come to the aid of Serb rebels during that offensive, they agreed to accept the peace plan and eventually relinquish control of Eastern Slavonia, a fertile, oil-rich region.
The transition was gradual. Most Serbs living in the area now have Croatian documents, and the Croatian currency and legal, health and education systems were introduced.
The Croatian government estimates that it will cost $2.5 billion to reconstruct Eastern Slavonia. It is seeking much of that money from international sources, including the European Union.
Refugee problem among most vexing
Croats return to reclaim homes taken by Serbs
In addition to reconstruction, the Croatian government also faces the vexing problem of what to do about refugees on both sides.
Many of the 80,000 Croats who fled to other parts of the country in 1991 now want to return. But there is no place for them to live because Serb refugees were settled in their homes during the war.
The Croatian government has been appealing for restraint as it tries to come up with ways to appease both sides without causing wholesale disruption or violence.
About 100,000 ethnic Serbs remain in Eastern Slavonia. Many local Serbs fear that, given the hard feelings and violence of the war years, they could be mistreated under Croatian rule.
"We have come to terms with reality and have decided to stay," said Mirjana Davidovic, whose husband fought against the Croats. "But my husband and I don't know what awaits us."
But thousands of Serbs have applied for Croatian passports, and fewer than one in five have left. Some say they aren't afraid of the transition.
"It's good, we have peace and I'm not afraid," said Zdravka Kukic. "The worst is behind us."
Reuters contributed to this report.