Bosnian Muslims Losing Their Haven; Serb Gains, Croat Shifts Drive Refugees, Spread Fear in Central Mountain Region

The Washington Post
November 12, 1992

TRAVNIK, Bosnia – All of a sudden, a land of sanctuary for Bosnia’s Muslims has turned into a land of fear.

Until a few weeks ago, Muslim leaders thought central Bosnia would escape Serb domination and remain a rugged haven for their threatened people. But enemy Serbs are advancing, Croat allies are turning into adversaries, and an avalanche of refugees is pouring in.

Now, fear is blanketing the region like an early snow. The heaviest accumulation of fright is found in Travnik, which has become a front-line city after the fall of nearby Jajce. Mayor Muhamad Curic wears combat fatigues and is flanked by a bodyguard whose assault rifle is fully loaded.

“Nobody is safe in Travnik,” Curic acknowledged.

Under the smoking barrels of Serb howitzers, more than 35,000 people fled Jajce two weeks ago in a miles-long column of misery that stumbled through Travnik, Vitez, Gornji Vakuf, Zenica and other threatened towns in central Bosnia.

A minaret-topped town that was delightful in its better days, Travnik is set in a narrow valley that is difficult for an enemy to storm outright. But the Serbs don’t risk their lives in frontal assaults — they prefer to sit in the hills and lob howitzer shells at civilian targets.

“The Serbs cannot invade Travnik, but they can destroy it,” said a Bosnian army officer.

Already, the thud of Serb howitzers is becoming louder, the shells landing in Travnik more frequently. There are edgy roadblocks all over the place. And there are hurried conversations among people with their bags packed, their hopes stowed away.

Hajra, a Muslim housewife, argued with her husband the other day about whether to buy a sheep from one of the farmers-turned-refugees who are trudging through town trying to sell their livestock for any price. No, Hajra told her husband, we mustn’t buy the sheep. We might become refugees in a few weeks, too, and then what would we do with it?

The cafeteria at the Bosnian army headquarters in Travnik now has enough food for only one meal a day, and there is rarely any meat. The soldiers on the front line, just a few miles away, must be fed first, and the mouths of the town’s exhausted refugees must also be filled. And this must be done in between the Serb shellings.

The hospital is in a bind. It has been shelled many times, and so it has literally gone underground. Patients’ beds line the basement corridors, and director Mirsad Granov roams around consoling crying mothers and wives. The hospital’s untended lawn is used as an impromptu pasture for the weary horses that have carried injured soldiers down from the mountains.

The toll of war can be tracked at the main park, which now is a graveyard. Row after row, fresh burial mounds are laden with flowers, ribbons, wooden plaques. Travnik believes in the ideal of multi-ethnic living, and so there is no division in death, either. The largest burial mound, with more flowers than the others, entombs Mihajlo Petrovic, a local Serb who fought in the Bosnian army.

The road from Travnik to Jablanica, on the other end of central Bosnia, is now studded with rival roadblocks that Croats and Muslims set up after they began fighting last month over attempts by Croats to establish their primacy over jointly held territory. The skirmishes have died down, but the new checkpoints restrict the movement of people and supplies.

It happens every few miles. One roadblock will be Croat, the next will be Muslim, and so on. Jumpy soldiers point their guns in both directions. Anyone who fails to stop ends up with a rear windshield full of bullet holes.

The Muslims’ roadblocks usually consist of little more than a few tires in the road, or perhaps a tree trunk or two. The handful of soldiers at the roadside might be sharing a single hunting gun.

The Croats, backed by their ethnic brothers inside Croatia, have sandbagged bunkers, stop signs and floodlights. They have anti-tank mines positioned like explosive pylons to funnel traffic into a slow-moving line. Anyone who drives over one of the barbell-shaped mines will need a new car.

A drive through these roadblocks, over the improvised dirt roads that skirt the advancing Serb lines, leaves a nervous impression on most visitors. Winter is coming, and even the United Nations relief officials who are trying to feed this isolated region are afraid that despite their efforts, the sanctuary of central Bosnia is dying.

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.