Inter-ethnic tensions in Croatia, as in the former Yugoslavia, increased in the late 1980s and intensified after the Croatian elections in April and May 1990. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) won a majority of seats in parliament and elected its leader, Franjo Tudjman, president of Croatia. With Tudjman's election, Croatian nationalism soared - mirroring a rising nationalism among Serbs living in Croatia who demanded political autonomy in areas of Croatia where they constituted a majority or a significant minority. In August 1990, Serbs declared an autonomous region in an area around the town of Knin and created their own government institutions. In October 1990, rebel Serb leaders declared the creation of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina (Srpska Autonomna Oblast (SAO) Krajina, formerly referred to as the Community of Municipalities of Northern Dalmatia and Lika).

On March 16, 1991, the Serbian National Council (i.e., the parliament of the Knin-based SAO Krajina) declared Krajina's independence from Croatia. Meanwhile, tensions rose between Serb and Croat extremists in Eastern Slavonia, and armed conflict began in early May 1991, when rebel Serbs in Borovo Selo, north of the city of Vukovar, killed thirteen Croatian police officers who were seeking to rescue two other police officers taken hostage by the Serbs earlier. In June 1991, as Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence, militant Serbs launched offensives to establish control of the regions with a significant Serb population, including the eastern regionof Croatia bordering Serbia across the Danube River - called Eastern Slavonia, and including parts of the counties of Baranja and Srijem. These areas were declared part of the Serbian Autonomous Region (SAO) of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem.1 Serbian forces also assumed control over parts of Western Slavonia, eventually retaining control in and around the town of Okucani. On December 19, 1991, Milan Babic, then president of the SAO Krajina, and Goran Hadzic, leader of the SAO Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, announced that the areas were being joined to form a single Serbian "state" in Croatia. In February 1992, the two areas officially declared their independence from Croatia and christened the new "state" the Republic of Serbian Krajina (Republika Srpska Krajina - RSK).

Throughout this period, the army of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Jugoslavenska Narodna Armija - JNA) intervened ostensibly to separate Serbian troops and Croatian police forces, but such efforts supported Serbian forces and consolidated Serbian territorial gains. By September 1991, the JNA and Serbian paramilitary groups from Serbia were overtly coming to the military aid of rebel Serbian forces in Croatia. Intense fighting took place in Eastern Slavonia in late 1991. Between August and November 1991, Serbian forces from Serbia proper and the JNA jointly undertook the siege and destruction of Vukovar, a multi-ethnic city on the banks of the Danube and Eastern Slavonia's largest city. Serbian forces eventually assumed control of over 30 percent of Croatia and systematically persecuted, imprisoned or expelled Croats, Hungarians and other non-Serbs living in areas they had captured. By late 1991, Serbs had established control over Eastern Slavonia, resulting in the expulsion of over 80,000 ethnic Croats from the region.2 Many of these Croat displaced persons (or DPs) continue to live in temporary housing, including in centers for displaced persons and in many economy hotels in Osijek, Vinkovci, Zagreb and other Croatian cities.

This phase of the war in Croatia ended when the parties agreed to a peace plan after mediation by U.N. negotiator Cyrus Vance in late 1991 and early 1992. Under the plan, Yugoslav federal forces agreed to withdraw from the areas where Serbs had gained control, and U.N. forces (UNPROFOR) were stationed in those areas and charged with, among other things, protecting the non-Serb minority, disarming the Serb militias, protecting the Serbs from Croatian attack and overseeing the return of displaced Croats. Three areas came under UNPROFOR's mandate: Sectors South and North, along the Croat-Bosnian border and including the towns of Glina and Knin; Sector West, around the town of Pakrac; and Sector East, comprising Eastern Slavonia. The UNPROFOR mission was initially authorized for twelve months but was renewed and extended seven times. The seventh renewal was agreed to on September 30, 1994, when the UNPROFOR mission was extended for an additional six months. In early 1995, however, the Croatian government stated that it would no longer agree to extend the mandate of UNPROFOR and that its presence in Croatia permitted the consolidation of rebel Serb territorial gains. Seemingly under pressure from the international community,3 Croatian President Tudjman agreed to the maintenance of a smaller U.N. presence in Croatia with a revised mandate.

On February 4, 1995, the Security Council approved a new configuration for the U.N. mission in Croatia. Renamed the U.N. Confidence Restoration Operation (UNCRO), the new mission reduced U.N. troop presence in Croatia from 14,000 to 8,000. As suggested by the U.N. Security Council in February 1995, UNCRO's mandate was to include implementation of the aforementioned 1994 cease-fire accord and facilitate the implementation of an economic agreement between the Croatian and RSK authorities. The number of UNCRO troops was eventually reduced even further, but the details of its mandate were not set forth due to disagreements between the Croatian government and RSK forces.4

Such disputes became moot when the Croatian army launched offensives in May and August 1995 against Sector West and the Krajina (Sectors North and South), respectively, quickly retaking control of those regions and leaving Sector East (Eastern Slavonia) as the last of the Serb-held regions of Croatia. The military operations of 1995 resulted in the expulsion or departure of some 200,000 Serbs from those regions. Some 60-70,000 of these displaced persons went to Eastern Slavonia, with the rest going to Serbia, Kosovo, Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia-Hercegovina, or third countries.5 After the August 1995 Krajina offensive, tensions rose as the Croatian army squared off against Serbian troops and JNA units in Eastern Slavonia. Fearing that another battlefront would open in Croatia and possibly involve the Yugoslav Army, the international community intervened to calm tensions in Eastern Slavonia and to resolve its status. Following talks co-chaired by Thorvald Stoltenberg, then U.N. negotiator for the former Yugoslavia, and Peter Galbraith, the U.S. ambassador to Croatia, RSK Serbs agreed, in principle, to return Eastern Slavonia to Croatian government control. For its part, the Croatian government agreed to a phased transfer of authority and to the maintenance of an international presence in the area during and after this transition period.

The agreements were set forth in the Basic Agreement on the Region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Sirmium (referred to as the Basic Agreement or the Erdut Agreement), signed November 12, 1995, in which the Croatian government and local Serb leaders agreed that Eastern Slavonia would return to Croat authority by January 15, 1997.6 Among other things, the Basic Agreement called for demilitarization of the region, assured the rights of all persons to return to their original homes, assured the rights of those in Eastern Slavonia to remain, and provided for elections, a transitional police force, and human rights monitoring. The Security Council resolution approving the Erdut Agreement also created UNTAES, which would administer Eastern Slavonia with a military component (5,000 soldiers), as well as civilian police monitors, a transitional police force and civilian staff to handle election, refugee and other integration issues.7 The Basic Agreement permitted an extension of the transition period, and on November 15, 1996, in response to a request by the local Serb community, the Security Council extended the transition period and UNTAES's mandate to July 15, 1997.8 This resolution also raised the possibility of a reduced UNTAES presence which would remain after July 15, 1997 until January 15, 1998. More detailed plans for the implementation of the Basic Agreement were set forth in a Letter of Intent from the government of Croatia, datedJanuary 13, 1997.9 The Letter of Intent set forth general voter qualifications, provided for cultural and educational autonomy for Serbs and minorities and proportional representation in the police and the judiciary, set a two-year deferment from military service for Serbs, and assured that various senior government posts would go to Serbs.

Eastern Slavonia (Sector East) encompasses an area of 2,153 square kilometers with 159 settlements (i.e., including cities, towns, villages and hamlets). Prior to the conflict, it was a region of mixed ethnicity with Croats comprising the largest ethnic group, but including a significant Serb minority along with Hungarians, Slovaks and others. Of the 193,513 people who lived in the area at the time of the 1991 census, 86,096 or 44 percent were Croats, 67,567 or 35 percent were Serbs, and the 39,850 inhabitants who comprised the remaining 21 percent of the area's population were Hungarians, Slovaks, Ruthenians and others, including those who identified themselves as Yugoslavs. By the war's end, Eastern Slavonia had become majority Serb. Current population estimates range from 120,000 to 150,000, of which the significant majority are Serb.10 Half of the Serb population have been living in Eastern Slavonia since prior to the war; the other half comprises Serbs displaced from the Krajina and other areas formerly controlled by Serbs.

1 Baranja refers to the region in the north of Eastern Slavonia. The region of Srem (as Serbs spell it, or Srijem, as Croats spell it - UNTAES adopted in its title the Latin name for this region, Sirmium) straddles the Danube river and stretches over the south of Eastern Slavonia. 2 There is a wide range of estimates for the number of displaced persons from Eastern Slavonia. The Croatian government's Office for Transitional Administration estimates that there are 80,000 to 90,000 displaced persons from Eastern Slavonia, 35,000 of whom live in Osijek. The Foreign Ministry claims that there are 96,000 non-Serbs displaced from Eastern Slavonia. "Foreign Ministry Statement on the Documents Program in the Danubian Region and on the Status of Serbs and Other Minorities in Croatia," Zagreb, February 6, 1997. 3 Some believe that the Croatian government never intended the U.N. withdrawal from the country and that its threats not to renew the U.N. mission's mandate were aimed at redirecting international attention to the U.N.'s ineffectiveness in Croatia. 4 UNCRO was established by U.N. Security Council Resolution 981, March 31, 1995. 5 There are no accurate data available for the number of displaced persons in Eastern Slavonia. UNTAES' working estimate is approximately 60,000 persons. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Vukovar, March 14, 1997. 6 For further background on the events leading to the signing of the Basic Agreement, see Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, "Croatia: Impunity For Abuses Committed During Operation Storm and the Denial of the Right of Refugees to Return to the Krajina," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 8, no. 13(D), August 1996, p. 40-42. 7 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1037, January 15, 1996. 8 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1079, November 15, 1996. 9 Letter Dated 13 January 1997 from the Permanent Representative of Croatia to the United Nations Addressed to the President of the Security Council, attaching the Letter from the Government of the Republic of Croatia on the completion of the peaceful reintegration of the region under the Transitional Administration, Republic of Croatia, January 13, 1997, S/1997/27. 10 There is no accurate data available for the total number of people in Eastern Slavonia or for the number of original residents who remain in Eastern Slavonia. The Croatian government estimates that there are 88,000 ethnic Serbs in Eastern Slavonia. "Foreign Ministry Statement on the Documents Program in the Danubian Region and on the Status of Serbs and Other Minorities in Croatia," Zagreb, February 6, 1997. (To arrive at a total population, one would have to add also the total number of non-Serbs currently living in the region.) Others suggest considerably higher numbers for the current population of Serbs in Eastern Slavonia. See, e.g., Jonathan Randal, "Last Serb Outpost in Croatia Is Skeptical Reintegration Will Succeed," Washington Post, February 11, 1997 (120,000 Serbs currently in Eastern Slavonia, of which half are displaced).