In Bosnia, A Treacherous Trek to Safety; Thousands Dodge Shelling on Long Walk from Serb-Captured Town

The Washington Post
October 31, 1992

TRAVNIK, Bosnia, Oct. 30 – Limping and bleeding, thousands of Muslims and Croats arrived here today after dodging Serb artillery fire as they fled on foot from a fallen city that they say is burning behind them.

The first escapees from Jajce, a former Bosnian government stronghold in central Bosnia-Hercegovina that has cracked under a brutal Serb siege, began straggling to safety here after crossing a 40-mile no man’s land strewn with bullets, misery and terror. U.N. officials here say they are just the first of 30,000 Jajce residents attempting to flee the Serb forces’ latest attempt at “ethnic cleansing.”

Caked in mud, many of the Bosnian refugees collapsed in a stupor of tears and exhaustion as they reached the security of a military checkpoint outside Bosnian-held Travnik. They were dazed and pale, and looked as though they had been fighting a war rather than fleeing one.

“I don’t know how long I have been walking. I don’t know where my wife is,” said Radovan Micko, an 80-year-old Croat whose face was smeared with blood from a welt on his forehead. He had stumbled many times on the rugged mountain tracks from Jajce, and his heavy steps seemed to come in slow motion. “I used to be a music teacher,” he said. “I had to leave my instruments in Jajce. I had a violin that was made in 1907.”

Micko left Jajce two days ago when the city began falling to the Serbs.

Like the other survivors, he could not stop to eat or sleep along the treacherous road, and by the time he reached safety, all that was left of his life was contained in a mud-splattered briefcase that he gripped with a blistered hand. His wife’s handbag was draped around one of his stooped shoulders.

Micko’s plight is a snapshot of the drama being played out in the hills of Bosnia tonight as yet another humanitarian nightmare unfolds in this war-torn region.

U.N. relief officials here say 5,000 Muslims and Croats fleeing Jajce are trapped about eight miles from Travnik, pinned down by Serb mortar and sniper fire.

As many as 30,000 more are winding their way to the bottleneck in a miles-long escape column.

The Jajce refugees said that for two days they dodged bullets and mortar shells from Serb gunners in the hills surrounding their escape route.

The gunfire forced the refugees to dive to the ground, hide in the bushes or simply run for their lives.

The exodus comes at the end of another successful Serb siege that relied on constant shelling of civilian targets from impregnable hillside positions.

The refugees said they had lived for the past several months in bomb shelters, venturing outside only for food.

Often, however, they did not eat because going into the open was too dangerous.

The conquest of Jajce is another example of the violent, two-sided policy pursued by the Bosnian Serb leadership.

At the peace conference on Bosnia held in London in August, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic promised, in writing, to silence the guns around four besieged cities, including Jajce.

That promise has not been honored.

The capture of Jajce, which had a pre-siege population of 20,000, is of major importance to the Serbs because they now control its hydroelectric dam, giving them a crucial power supply for their conquered territory.

Jajce also carries symbolic importance: It is the place where, during World War II, the federation of Yugoslavia was proclaimed by its Communist founders.

Helena Svirac was not thinking of history as she finished her 48-hour trek today. She is just 27 years old, but the journey was hard on her because she is seven months pregnant.

“Jajce is burning,” she whispered, slouching next to her mother and brother. “We were running away and crying and trying to stay together. Everyone had only one bag apiece, but even that was too much for some people. They had to leave it along the road.”

Ibrahim Berber, 57, hobbled to the military checkpoint about midday. A tired young girl was perched on his shoulders.

“I left Jajce two nights ago at 1 a.m.,” he said. “I walked all day and night carrying this child. It is her second birthday today. She is my son’s child. My son was killed on Sunday.” He broke into tears.

The final stretch of no man’s land passes through an attractive village called Turbe, winding past its mosque and then following a line of plum trees. The thud of Serb howitzers echoes through the surrounding hillsides, which are aflame with golden autumn colors.

The sad influx of Croats and Muslims includes militiamen with their heads hung low. Many of them are bandaged, with blood seeping through the soiled rags binding their hands, legs or head.

Soldiers and civilians alike are sharing similar feelings of betrayal — by their generals, by their political leaders and by the outside world, which they say has not intervened to stop the Serbs from continuing their war of aggression in Bosnia. The Jajce survivors say they have lost hope.

“All these United Nations people just drive around in their nice cars and watch, without doing anything,” said Robert Mesic, a soldier. “Please tell the world that if it won’t do anything for us, then just leave us alone and let us die in peace.”

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.