Dark Memories Haunt a Sunny Island Refuge; Terror of War Lingers for Bosnian Muslims

The Washington Post
June 23, 1992

BADIJA, Croatia – This is an island where paradise meets hell.

With its emerald waters, palm trees, balmy weather and a charming former Benedictine monastery, Badija is the kind of place travel agencies feature on big color posters. But for 340 Slavic Muslim refugees from the war in nearby Bosnia-Hercegovina, this is an island of grief, hysteria and nightmares.

While Badija provides a welcome refuge from the artillery barrages of powerful Serb militia forces in Bosnia, it offers little escape from the war’s psychological demons.

There is Sanya, a dazed 11-year-old girl who refuses to eat, sleeps fitfully, cries compulsively and begs for her mother, a nurse working at a front-line hospital. She tugs other refugees by the sleeve to show them a worn picture of her mother.

There is Vanya, from the besieged Bosnian town of Mostar, who spent her 15th birthday last month in a bomb shelter as Serb forces pressed their attack on the city.

There is Rabija, who fled the bloodshed in Mostar with her two young daughters, leaving her husband behind to help defend the city. She has not heard from him in 20 days and fears the worst. She has nightmares about it every night.

The sprawling 17th-century monastery is the only building on Badija, and until this year it was used as a tourist hotel. Now, it serves as a refugee center. Its ancient stone walls are beautifully fashioned, its oleander bushes emit a soothing, sweet fragrance, its windows offer a stunning seaside panorama — but the magnificent setting is having little curative effect on the post-traumatic stress that afflicts the women and children here.

The Bosnian war has created more than a million refugees, most of them Muslims, and nearly half have fled to shelters here in Croatia. It is the largest wave of refugees in Europe since World War II.

There is a familiar pattern to their misery. First, they spend days, weeks or months in bomb shelters as their food supplies dwindle and their neighborhoods are reduced to rubble by Serb gunfire. The next stage is the perilous flight out, in which the refugees must run a gantlet of artillery shells, crossfires and sniper bullets. There is also the risk of capture by Serb militiamen, whose “ethnic purification” campaign targets Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats.

The refugees who finally arrive in Croatia are the ones who have escaped indiscriminate gunfire, casual murder and other forms of wanton brutality that the Bosnian war has spawned.

Most rooms here are kept lighted at night because the refugees, almost all from Mostar, are afraid of the dark. The rumble of thunderor an airplane can provoke screams of terror. Except for a ham radio operator who relays messages to Mostar, the refugees are cut off from their hometown. A bit of bad news — or a rumor — sets off contagious fits of tears and fainting. “It’s hysteria,” said Huso Kosaric, the refugee center director.

Kosaric is trying to find a psychiatrist to counsel the refugees, but in the meantime he has organized a school for the children and chores for the mothers — anything to provide diversion.

“We try not to talk about Mostar,” said Nedim, a 16-year-old Muslim militiaman who laid down his gun last month to take his mother to safety.

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.