Banja Luka, a Town Without Pity; Bosnian Serbs Accelerate Expulsions of Muslims and Croats

The Washington Post
August 12, 1992

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia – This is a city of daytime arrests, midnight beatings and around-the-clock terror.

Serb militiamen drive through town, some wearing black leather masks and gloves, firing automatic weapons in the air, shouting nationalist slogans. Warplanes buzz the city, close enough to rattle windows. Helicopters clatter above the rooftops.

There is a 10 p.m. curfew, but only the drunk or well-armed willingly venture outside after darkness falls about 8. For the city’s Slavic Muslims and Croats, even daytime can be horrifying.

Banja Luka is the second-largest city in Bosnia-Hercegovina, a once neighborly place of about 110,000 Serbs and 75,000 Muslims and Croats. But, like other towns and villages of northern Bosnia, Serb militia forces and local Serb political authorities are forcing the Muslims and Croats to leave town. While recent international attention has focused on conditions in Serb detention camps for Croat and Muslim men, in cities like Banja Luka the Serb campaign to drive these groups from their homes and lands has accelerated.

In larger cities, Muslims and Croats are not being marched out at gunpoint, a practice Serb gunmen are alleged to have used in more isolated villages. Sufficient terror has been generated in Banja Luka without such tactics that about a third of its non-Serbs have fled, and most of those left behind are searching desperately for safe passage out.

Besides roving Serb security men and the frequent echo of gunfire, much of what intimidates the Muslims and Croats here is on public view. Buildings are splattered with Serb nationalist slogans and symbols. The radio replays speeches that warn of threats from “fascist” Croats and “fundamentalist” Muslims.

One sign of Muslim and Croat desperation is that they have papered trees with offers to swap their apartments here for ones in other cities — including Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, which is still held by the Bosnian government’s Muslim-led defense forces.

According to U.N. relief officials and city residents, Muslims and Croats are being fired from their jobs. Police raid their apartments, ostensibly looking for weapons. Streets are suddenly cordoned off, and residents’ documents are checked. Men of military age are taken away.

The terror includes random attacks, according to Muslims. The city’s main mosque, built more than 400 years ago, has been raked with machine-gun fire. A Muslim-owned optical shop next to it has been bombed.

Fearing deportation to Serb prison camps, many Muslim and Croat men live in hiding, never venturing outside their homes. Some scurry from one safe house to another, afraid that the police will catch up with them if they sleep at home.

“We are living like rats,” said a Muslim who was too fearful to give his name. He said he has left his home once in six months, relying on his parents to bring him food and other necessities. “I was an idiot,” he added. “I thought ethnic cleansing would never happen here.”

Ethnically, Slavic Muslims, Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs are virtually identical. But “ethnic cleansing” is the term applied by Serb leaders to their policy of forcing Croats and Muslims out of what they have declared as the autonomous Serb republic of Bosnia — an entity roughly consistent with the 70 percent of the republic occupied by Serb militia forces.

Local Serb leaders say the Muslims are leaving voluntarily. They claim that because Bosnia’s Muslim president, Alija Izetbegovic, has failed in an alleged attempt to set up a fundamentalist Muslim state throughout Bosnia, his followers are disenchanted and want to move to Western Europe. The Serb leaders say also that they are doing all they can to stop intimidation of non-Serbs by radical nationalists. The evidence here is overwhelmingly to the contrary.

On a street next to the Hotel Bosna the other day, the stories of one group of Muslims and Croats suggested that intimidation is the rule. A line of buses, filled with Muslims and Croats trying to flee the city, had just returned from an aborted trip to the Croatian border, where they had been turned back. As the buses were emptied of their terrified passengers, machine-gun fire crackled in the air.

“We can’t live here,” sobbed a Muslim girl who nearly collapsed in fright as a rat-tat-tat of gunfire burst out. The girl would not give her name, but she did tell her story, even though an unidentified man was filming the interview from a distance of about 20 yards. Asked why he was filming, the man would not say. He just smiled.

The girl said that Serb policemen came to her family’s apartment a month ago at midnight, saying they were searching for weapons. They ransacked the place — no weapons were found, she said — and took her father away. He returned three hours later, his face and body badly bruised. “My father was beaten up for no reason,” she said. “He wants to save me and my sister. He wants us to leave.”

A 42-year old Croat named Goran sat on a suitcase nearby. He said he had been fired from his job and that he fears for his life because he has refused to join the Serb militia. He is married to a Serb, but he said that’s no guarantee of safety. “This is pure ethnic cleansing in a dirty civil war,” he said.

There are two places in Banja Luka that Muslims and Croats flock to these days. One is the Red Cross office, where they are pleading for help and asking for information about lost husbands or sons. There is a long line out front.

The other place is a city administrative office where, Muslims say, they must sign over possession of their homes, cars and other property before getting permission to leave. Then they are given special passes allowing them to pass through Serb roadblocks surrounding Banja Luka.

There is a line at that office, too.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.