Bosnian Refugee Convoy Is Blocked; Slovenia Blames Austria, Austria Blames Germany for Transit Denial

The Washington Post
July 27, 1992

CATEZ, Croatia, July 26 – Six busloads of Bosnian women and children rolled up to a Slovenian border station near here Saturday and asked to be allowed to drive through Slovenia to promised sanctuary in the Netherlands.

More than 24 hours later, they are still here, a few yards short of the border checkpoint. Transit permission was denied because Slovenia is afraid it will be stuck with the 350 Slavic Muslim refugees, even though the Dutch have agreed to accept them. Slovenia blames Austria, saying it will not allow the refugees to cross its territory; Austria blames Germany, saying it has refused them passage; Germany says the Dutch may change their minds.

Now, having escaped the hell of Bosnia’s four-month-old fratricidal war, the road-weary mothers and children are caught in a purgatory of European timidity. The refugees have no shelter except their stifling buses, and they are using an adjacent cornfield as a toilet. Six children have been rushed to a local hospital suffering from fever, diarrhea and dehydration; they have little to eat, and a relief official was mobbed today when he tried to distribute ice cream cones among them.

After a day of waiting impatiently on the blazing-hot roadside, the older children have grown restless and angry. For much of the day, they stood near the border post chanting Bosnian songs at the line of cars and trucks that slide across the frontier without a hitch. At one point, several dozen ran into the road and stopped traffic with a sit-down protest in front of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer.

“Open the border,” shouted the tire-high children. It stayed shut. “We don’t need even bread or water from you,” pleaded one young girl. “We just want to pass through.”

The refugees here amount to a mere drop in the tidal wave of Bosnians displaced by the war — most by heavily armed Serb militia forces who are forcing all non-Serbs from territory they control, now about two-thirds of the former Yugoslav republic. The vast majority of the 1.3 million refugees are Slavic Muslims, Bosnia’s largest communal group, and more than a third of these are crowded into neighboring Croatia, which a U.N. relief official has described as a country-turned-refugee-camp.

Like almost all the refugees, these bore nightmarish tales of horror and human depredation in their war-ravaged homeland, children as well as adults. Such stories are impossible to confirm, but they are treated credibly by U.N. relief officials, who say that the brutality they describe seems beyond a child’s imagination.

Senka Paratusic, 17, said she finally escaped from Bosnia a few days ago after a two-month trek that began when Serb militiamen captured her once-tranquil village in late May. Her brother was arrested immediately and sent to a prison camp, she said. Her father disappeared. Soon after, she said, the occupying Serbs marched all the Muslim women and children out of the village, past the local mosque. A Muslim man was stretched across the mosque’s front door, she said, his hands nailed to the wood. “The man was still alive,” Senka said, “but nobody could help him.”

Zumreta Mujkanovic, another teenager, said her misery also began about two months ago, when conquering Serbs forced all Muslim women and children from her hometown in northeastern Bosnia. The men, she says, were placed in “concentration camps.”

The most frightening part of her subsequent forced passage across Bosnia, she said, was when the Serbs crammed her and hundreds of other Muslims being expelled from the region into a train of cattle cars. Along the way, she said, the train stopped in a forest for six hours while armed Serbs robbed everyone on board.

Now, her worldly belongings consist of a suitcase she shares with her sister. For the moment, she sits in the little shade she can find, waiting for the border to open.

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.