Bosnia’s Muslims Caught Between Allies, Enemies

The Washington Post
July 19, 1992

BOSANSKI BROD, Bosnia – Ali Enic and hundreds of other refugees here are caught in a vise. Behind them are rampaging Serb militia forces. Ahead of them, just across a short bridge to safety, is a Croatian machine gun.

For six days, desperate men fleeing bloody ethnic conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina have lined up at the dangerously exposed end of this border town’s bridge to Croatia. With the Serb forces marching on Bosanski Brod and shelling it every day, the Bosnian men fear that they will be massacred unless the Croatians let them cross.

Their fears appear to be well-founded, but Croatia is weary of accepting the hundreds of thousands of Bosnians who are being shelled, shot and scared out of their country. According to policemen and refugees here, the Croatians are still accepting women and children but not fighting-age men.

At the Croatian end of the bridge, an armored personnel carrier aims its large-caliber machine gun straight across the bridge toward the Bosnian side, 300 yards away — a Balkan-style message that all of the Muslims here understand perfectly.

“They will shoot us if we try to cross,” said a dispirited refugee. “We are not afraid, because we have no hope for life anymore.”

The odds for them are as grim as the landscape. Shelling by the Serbs, whose forces have seized control of nearly three-fourths of Bosnia’s territory in three months of fighting, has destroyed about half of the houses in the immediate vicinity of the bridge; its metal girders have been gouged by aerial attacks. Even the Croatian town on the other side of the Sava River has been shelled.

Stretching out from the scarred span, the refugees’ vehicles are lined up as if on a huge used-car lot. There are cars, trucks, tractors, buses with shot-up windshields and a couple of fire engines, one of which has a bicyle strapped on its roof.

Enic, 45, like most of the 2,000 refugees here, is a member of the Slavic Muslim community that accounts for 44 percent of Bosnia’s population and has, along with Bosnia’s Croats, borne the brunt of Serb aggression in the former Yugoslav republic. He was a soldier in Odzak, his home town, but his unit was overrun and retreated a week ago. He had about 10 minutes to throw whatever belongings he could find into a cart drawn by his tractor, he said. He salvaged a four-burner stove, blankets, a milk bucket and a couple of used kitchen sponges.

“It is everything I have,” Enic said.

For six days, he and the 2,000 other Muslim men have slept on the shrapnel-splattered asphalt in front of the bridge, waiting for a green light from the other side. They duck under their cars when the air raid siren wails or shells fall nearby — it happens all the time now — and scoff at suggestions that the Serbs will honor a cease-fire negotiated Friday in London and scheduled to take effect Sunday night.

“We don’t ask anything from Croatia except to let us pass,” said Haris, another Muslim soldier. “But nobody wants us.”

Croatia already is housing 660,000 refugees and says it cannot afford to take any more. This week it began sending trainloads of them to its western border to be taken to wealthier countries that, until now, have been reluctant to get involved.

The soldiers’ bid for refuge in Croatia is complicated by the fact that they technically are not ordinary refugees because they are escaping the draft laws of their own country. The Croatian government has an agreement with the Bosnian government to send fleeing soldiers and draft-age men back home.

The standoff highlights the conflict between Bosnia’s Croats and Muslims, who are supposed to be allies in the battle in their own republic against the Serbs, who are backed by the powerful, Serb-dominated Yugoslav army. Croats — whether in Croatia or Bosnia — display the easy bravery of the well-armed, and many view these Muslims as the faint-of-heart who have run from battle.

“They are all cowards,” said Zdravko Rubil, 40, a Croat who is in charge of a small Bosnian police detachment here. Rubil, who quickly ducked into a building at the sound of an air raid siren, obviously dislikes the Muslims but said he would let them pass if the Croats behind the machine gun 300 yards away would approve.

Mohammed, a fleeing soldier, sees things differently. He said the fight against the Serbs is suicidal, noting that they have easily taken all key towns in northeastern Bosnia. He would gladly fight again, he said, if only the West would lift an arms embargo that keeps the Muslims from getting effective weapons.

While the Serb offensive is backed with Yugoslav army tanks, “all that we have to fight against them are Kalashnikov rifles,” Mohammed said.

Even though Muslims are the largest communal group in Bosnia, many of their military commanders are Croats. The Muslims here said they feel betrayed by these commanders and accuse them of sacrificing Muslim territory in a behind-the-scenes deal with the Serbs to partition the country into Serb and Croat parts.

Serb and Croat leaders met secretly in early May and reportedly agreed on a plan to partition Bosnia among its three communal groups, and this month an autonomous Croat state was declared within Bosnia. The Serbs proclaimed their own state in Bosnia months ago.

But the Muslim refugees here aim their most bitter attacks at Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim. Izetbegovic is being criticized by many Muslims, who accuse him of failing to anticipate the war and prepare for the fight against the Serbs. The critics’ language is explicit and battlefield-crude.

The curses against Izetbegovic, the Serbs and the Croats help the Muslims here pass the time. They realize that time and circumstances are against them. The few hundred asphalt-paved yards between them and safety might as well be a mile-long minefield. Even so, they say, Croatia offers their only hope of survival.

“If the Serbs enter Bosanski Brod, we will try to swim across the river,” said a refugee.

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.