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What happened at Pakrac?

the working title of a research program
that started in February 1997


By Kerstin Schultz


We have been witnessing the creation of new ethnic boundaries or maybe reactivating of existing ethnic boundaries in former Yugoslavia. But we do not know when and why some people started to treat their former friends and neighbours as enemies and why that led to atrocities, totally destroyed societies and genocide.

In order to find out why, we have to trace the process and the people involved in it. It seems to be a good way to choose one geographically defined place and try to find out what has happened to the people living there, also in their minds. Our assumption is that an understanding of what happened in Pakrac in Western Slavonia, Croatia, will offer useful insights into what happened elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, and, for that matter, into other parts of the world where ethnic hostilities act to draw bounderies between peoples who had little or no sense of those differences before.


The principal goals of the program is to learn about:

- the traumatic effects of the hostilities that have swept across the area, and

- the process that takes place when people of different nationalities who have lived in relative harmony for many years are suddenly invited to regard their neighbours as enemies, if not as members of a different species altogether.

In this program we will study what happened to people during the social breakdown, in what way they changed their attitudes, their self-image and their views of others and how they reacted to the events they were exposed to.

We have chosen the town of Pakrac in Western Slavonia, Croatia for several reasons. Some people claim that the wars in former Yugoslavia started in Pakrac and then refer to events in spring 1991 when Serb and Croat militiamen exchanged automatic gunfire as both sought to take control of the police station. The event as such did not start the war but the reports from the event started a chain reaction. In Belgrade the news reported that six Serbs had been killed and other media reported as many as 30 people killed, but probably no one was killed at all . Hostile events were reported early in this area and Pakrac were heavy damaged by the war, the front went straight through the town. Pakrac was then divided by a cease-fire line into a Croatian and a Serbian part controlled by the United Nations and a UN checkpoint.

Pakrac is also interesting because of the composition of its population. Before the war in 1991, Pakrac had approximately 8.500 inhabitants of whom roughly as many were Serbs as Croats, and as many as 18 % of other nationalities (Hungarians, Czechs and Italians). Mixed marriages were common, mostly between a Croat and a Serb. They all lived together in this small town surrounded by villages that were dominated by one of the ethnic groups. The demarcation line divided not only the town, it also separated families, friends and relatives from each other. This lasted for four years until May 1995 when the Croatian Army by force took control of the whole area and the UN mission dissolved.

Pakrac has also been exposed to a lot of interests from outsiders. The UN (UNPROFOR, United Nations Protection Force) was deployed here as well as several non-governmental organizations; as many as 500 young volunteers from all over Europe have been working here for shorter or longer periods. All these people who stayed in the area during the years of conflict have so much knowledge and information that ought to be gathered and analysed.

Members of this research project also know quite a lot about Pakrac and we have a good network in the area, which makes it easier to start up the project and get support from the authorities and others.

We believe it is important to understand the downward spiral along which people descend into bitterness and hatred and even slaughter in order to help those who have been caught up in that spiral to find the way back. One needs to know the downward path, that is, before one can help people retrace it.

The lessons of Pakrac might prove very instructive in other parts of the world, not only where efforts are being made to repair the damage done to the tissues of social life by outbursts of ethnic hostility, but where efforts are being made to avoid that kind of eruption in the first place.


The principal investigators in this project are:

Kai Eriksson, Ph D, Professor of Sociology, Yale University, Connecticut, U S A.

Eric Markusen, Ph D, Professor of Sociology and Social Work, South West State University, Minnesota, U S A.

Kerstin Schultz, Bachelor of Science in Social Work, member of the TFF Conflict-Mitigation Team (Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research), Lund, Sweden and research fellow at COPRI, Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, Copenhagen.

Eriksson has been studying human responses to disasters and the nature of ethnicity for many years, and in connection with those interests has visited Pakrac on four occasions.

Markusen has written extensively on genocide and is by now a seasoned veteran of travel in the former Yugoslavia.

Schultz has, as a member of TFF Conflict-Mitigation Team, travelled frequently in former Yugoslavia since 1991 and written and given lectures about the former Yugoslavia in general and about Western Slavonia in particular.


Feasibility project

In a first feasibility project Eric Markusen and Kerstin Schultz went to Zagreb, Pakrac and Vukovar in February - March 1997. The primary goals of that project was to:

a) form an opinion of the feasibility of the research program;

b) inform the authorities of Pakrac about our project and plans for the future,

c) trace the Serbs from Pakrac who now live in the neighbouring region of Eastern Slavonia, and set up a network in order to keep in contact if they will flee again,

d) conduct some interviews.


The report of that journey is available from Kerstin Schultz, whose e-mail address is: or

The project started in February 1997 with funding from Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, COPRI, Denmark.













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