Fleeing to Safety in a U.N. Convoy; Thousands of Bosnian Muslims Take Emergency Corridor to Croatia

The Washington Post
July 24, 1992

KARLOVAC, Croatia, July 23 – About 4,500 terrified Slavic Muslims emerged from the Bosnian city of Bosanski Novi today after U.N. personnel carved out an emergency land corridor to rescue them from shootings, beatings and jailings at the hands of local Serbs.

“I saw no one shot, but I saw corpses floating down the Sana River,” said Abdelhaid Davutovic, who was in the U.N. convoy of 60 buses and 280 cars that rumbled out of Bosnia, through Serb-occupied Croatian lands and finally into Croatia itself. “I saw them with my own eyes. One would pass, then after 15 minutes, two or three more. Half an hour later, there would be some more.”

Another refugee in the convoy, Sulya Sihreta, 26, said Serb militia forces in Bosanski Novi terrorized her neighborhood with random gunfire and then drove around announcing through a loudspeaker that all Muslims had to report immediately to the city’s sports stadium. She was held there for three days, during which time her house was looted and burned.

Worse was to come. Sulya was staying with her husband’s family, she said, when her father-in-law stepped outside one night. The family heard a shot, then another; outside, her father-in-law lay dead in a pool of blood.

According to U.N. relief officials, the Muslim refugees evacuated today from Bosanski Novi, a city of 50,000 in western Bosnia near the Croatian border, are the latest victims of “ethnic cleansing,” a term used to describe the campaign by the Serb faction in Bosnia’s three-month-old civil war to rid their conquered territory of local Muslims and other non-Serbs.

“We are facing a very brutal Serb policy,” said Claude Ellner, a German diplomat coordinating relief efforts here who compared “ethnic cleansing” to German deportations and executions of Jews during World War II.

As U.N. vehicles carrying the first refugees from Bosanski Novi entered Karlovac, local Croatians waved and blew kisses at them. Waving back, the refugees appeared relieved but dazed. When the buses disgorged them at a sports field, many crumpled on the ground in tears, and some were taken away in ambulances.

The sports field became a scene of raw emotion. Many of the Muslims were met by family members or friends who were not sure they had survived and, not wanting to be lost in a sea of refugees, hoisted placards bearing their names. For the lucky ones, there were cries of joy and hugs. For the unlucky ones, there were brave tears and silent hopes that the lost husband or friend might be on the next bus.

“My daddy was in prison,” said Damir, a 12-year-old boy who stood erect as his father knelt on the grass and sobbed uncontrollably. “The Serbs put him there because he is Muslim. They killed Muslims.”

Damir’s father was lucky. He was beaten with rifle butts, he said, then dragged to a hotel that was used as a makeshift jail — the city prison did not have enough room — and deprived of food and water for five days. He was freed, he said, because his wife pleaded every day with Bosanski Novi’s new Serb authorities to release him.

Like the other refugees, Damir and his father said they were thrown out of their house by Serbs. And, like the other refugees, Damir’s father had to sign a document before he left that transferred ownership of the house to its new inhabitants and declared that he had left voluntarily.

Karlovac today heard thousands of horror stories from the refugees, just some of the 1.3 million Bosnians — most of them Muslims — who have been driven from their country since the war began there in early April.

Safia Dizdarevic is one of the newest additions to the list. Standing on the field in bedroom slippers, she was not sure what her next step would be. In one hand, she held her daughter’s hand; in the other, a plastic doll with blond hair. Exhaustion was evident in her face.

Safia said the Serbs came to her house one day and threw her out, taking her most valuable belongings before setting the house ablaze. Afterward, she traveled from village to village around Bosanski Novi, staying with friends or relatives. With no more places to stay and tired of running, she joined today’s convoy.

“The Serbs came a few months ago and said there would be peace if we gave them our weapons,” she sighed. “And so we did.”

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.