Bosnian Refugees Form Miles-Long Column of Despair

The Washington Post
November 1, 1992

KARAULA, Bosnia – In an epic scene reminiscent of World War II, more than 30,000 Muslims and Croats are streaming out of the fallen city of Jajce. Some are leaving in cars, but most are walking or riding in wooden hay wagons, forming a column of destitution and despair stretching from Serb-captured Jajce to safety in Travnik 40 miles away.

“I am 80 years old — what am I to do?” cried Luca Andjic, a peasant woman who was crammed with about 25 others in a horse-drawn cart. “I lived in Jajce for my whole life. Where should I go now? I have no one, just a grandson who is away fighting in the Bosnian army. I would prefer to die.”

Behind her cart, stalled for a few minutes in the no man’s land surrounding this exposed village, was an unending line of sadness. There were toothless grandfathers pushing their belongings in wheelbarrows. Old women stumbled, as if in a daze. Tired ponies tried desperately to pull open wagons laden with three or four generations of the same family. Pet dogs limped along behind the carts.

The ragtag parade included cattle and sheep that farmers were trying to shepherd to safety from the advancing Serbs. Most of the farmers did not even bring a change of clothes — it was simply too much to carry. Some had an old hunting rifle slung over a shoulder. Occasionally they stopped to rest, flopping down on the grass next to their exhausted livestock.

The only thing of value that Delil Karajdzic had salvaged from Jajce was his rain-soaked flock of 25 sheep. “They are all I have now,” he said, clucking them past a bomb-shattered, blackened village outside Travnik. “I want to give them to the Bosnian army rather than let the Serbs have them.”

The drama started several months ago, when Bosnian Serb forces began besieging Jajce, whose peacetime population was 20,000. As shelling increased, refugees from neighboring villages retreated to the city, nearly doubling its size. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic pledged in writing at an August peace conference on Bosnia to silence the guns around Jajce.

Instead, the people of Jajce got more shells. For the past few weeks, refugees say, they lived almost nonstop in bomb shelters. In addition, they said, the city has been without electricity and short on food for the past month. Two days ago, Serb militiamen fought their way to the outskirts of Jajce, and the retreat started.

“We are talking about 30,000 to 40,000 people,” said Anders Levinson, a U.N. relief official here. “We have seen the same scenes before, but never on this tremendous scale. I am afraid that we will have the same scenario for one or two more nights.”

It has been a stupefying retreat. Anything that moved was on the dangerous 40-mile route to safety. Croats and Muslims were stuffed into dump trucks, flank to flank. Refugees covered a couple of fire engines, and tractors that had blown tires but continued wobbling impossibly along the road. The rugged mountain tracks snapped off the wheels of some wagons, which were then dragged by tired horses that strained against their ancient leather harnesses.

It went on like this for miles and miles. Lame pack mules carried the retreating soldiers’ guns and ammunition. Wagon after wagon were so crowded that people’s legs dangled from the sides. There was no room for the children or grandmothers who begged from the roadside for a lift. “Please, please,” some of them said; others just lifted their heads at passing wagons.

Here in Karaula, in the hills about 12 miles from Travnik, the atmosphere was like something from the Civil War era. A mud road runs through the village, which was clogged with the smells of unwashed clothes, horse manure and heavy smoke from wood fires. There were soldiers with the ageless look of defeat on their hollow faces. There were hay wagons and tractors, but no tanks or helicopters or jeeps.

A few of the wagons, however, carried electric stoves, tricycles and, on one of them, a Black & Decker chain saw. Somehow, cartons of American military rations — meals ready to eat — showed up in Karaula and were being devoured. Soldiers stabbed their bayonets into cans of German tuna.

About 15,000 refugees have arrived in Travnik over the past 24 hours, and at least that many more are expected in the next two days. They prefer to move at night to avoid being easy targets for Serb gunmen in the hills above their escape route.

“The Serbs fired on us all the time,” said Ivo Alandjic, who is 54 but looks a decade or two older. He escaped Jajce with about a dozen members of his family, the children and women alternating riding four ponies. “We are so tired,” Alandjic said, a thick tear plotting the lines on his pale cheek. “Everyone was fainting along the way.”

Relief officials have been so overwhelmed that many of the arrivals slept outside last night and again this evening, even though it was raining as darkness fell.

Now a front-line town, Travnik was also a refugee camp. Croats and Muslims were everywhere — lying in the parks and squares, slouched on sidewalks covered with fall leaves and parked along the roadside in their tractors. Their horses nibbled the grass in the town’s parks, although many of the refugees had brought hay.

It is an uneasy frontier town, partly because it has been flooded with so many armed soldiers with grudges against one another. The Muslims believe their Croat allies sold them out by making a backroom deal with the enemy Serbs. The Muslims accuse the Croats’ military leaders of withdrawing crucial troops from the front lines in exchange for land that the Serbs hold elsewhere. The Croats, on the other hand, say the Muslims are bad fighters.

But they all got a reminder this evening of where the real threat lies. As darkness fell, a general alert was sounded throughout Travnik. The Serbs had begun shelling the town.

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.