Muslims Forced to Leave Bosnia; Refugees Say Serbs Used Intimidation to Make Them Sign Up for U.N. Convoy

The Washington Post
July 25, 1992

KARLOVAC, Croatia, July 24 – Firing shots into the air and broadcasting threats over loudspeakers, ethnic Serbs in the Bosnian city of Bosanski Novi forced thousands of Muslims to join a United Nations evacuation convoy that was intended only for voluntary departures, Muslim refugees said today.

Packed into trucks, buses and cars, at least 8,000 refugees arrived here today and Thursday, twice the number expected by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the agency that arranged the land corridor into Croatia. They joined more than 1.3 million Bosnian Muslims already driven from their homes by the systematic “ethnic cleansing” of Serb-occupied areas, which has created the largest exodus of refugees in Europe since World War II.

A sudden burst of Serb intimidation coerced thousands of additional Muslims into abandoning the terror-filled Bosnian city, according to refugee accounts.

Vesna, a Muslim in her twenties who declined to give her last name, went to the Bosanski Novi bus station Thursday to say goodbye to friends who could no longer resist the Serbs’ campaign. Despite the shootings, beatings, arrests and lootings that have become a part of life for Muslims living in Serb-conquered cities across war-torn Bosnia, Vesna had not intended to leave.

At the station, Vesna said, local Serb militiamen fired assault rifles into the air and shouted at Muslims who were not leaving, “What are you waiting for?” Police and militia cars drove around the city announcing through loudspeakers that all Muslims should join the convoy before it was too late, according to Vesna and other refugees.

“I changed my mind,” Vesna said, standing outside a sports stadium here where many of the 8,000 exhausted refugees dozed in the shade. “I was afraid that they would rape me. I went home, I packed my things, and I went back to the station and got on a truck.”

The U.N. agency had reluctantly arranged the convoy — not wanting to help the Serbs’ campaign but not wanting to ignore the pleas of desperate Muslims. It was clear today that the United Nations had become an unwitting accomplice of Serbs who used the convoys to get rid of not only Muslims who wanted to leave, but many others who defiantly wanted to stay.

“We are faced with a permanent contradiction,” said Jose-Maria Mendiluce, the U.N. High Commissioner’s special envoy for the Yugoslav region. “If we help these people leave, we help ethnic cleansing.”

Mendiluce vented his frustration in an emergency meeting today with diplomats based here, warning them that “either you stop this war or you will be inundated with refugees.” Afterward, a diplomat said the Serb brutality in Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the refugee crisis it has spawned, are increasing in “quantum leaps.”

In an interview, Mendiluce predicted that 1 million Bosnians will flee in the next few months — on top of the 1.3 million who have already left — and that about 500,000 will die of starvation and cold once autumn rains and winter snows make it impossible to continue overland relief deliveries of food, medicine and heating oil. It was his most pessimistic prediction yet.

“The reality is 100 times worse than what people in Western capitals are thinking,” he said.

As they tried to find a bit of shade from the 95-degree heat and evade the stench rising from quickly accumulating piles of garbage, refugees here offered first-hand accounts of that reality.

Islam Sabic said he was one of about 1,000 men interned in the Bosanski Novi sports stadium. He said the detainees received water sporadically, perhaps every other day. Food consisted of one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of bread a day shared among 10 men. They ate the stadium grass.

Sabic, who is 51 but looks like a gaunt 70-year-old, said Serb militia guards fired over the prisoners’ heads just for the fun of it. A guard put the barrel of a rifle into his mouth — just for the fun of it.

A man named Mustafa, who asked that his last name not be used, sat under a tree and thumbed through a sheaf of papers for the document that he signed giving his belongings to Serb authorities. The one-page document began with the typed phrase “By my own will,” and included a pledge that, “I permanently leave the district of Bosanski Novi with my wife and two sons.”

Mustafa, like thousands of other Muslims, heard over the radio that the only way to leave Bosanski Novi was to sign the documents.

With his friends being rounded up or fired from their jobs, Mustafa knew what to do. He spent several days waiting in line at city hall with thousands of other Muslims. He alternated in line with his wife.

“If I hadn’t signed those papers, I wouldn’t be alive today,” said Mustafa, 37, an economist. “Of course it’s a lie that I wasn’t under pressure. Why else would I sign it?” His brother sat a few feet away, crying.

His parents, both 70, lived in their own house and were forced to sign the same type of document. They are in Karlovac too, frail and bewildered. They lived through World War II and had thought nothing could be worse than the massacres here 50 years ago.

By signing the document, Mustafa gave up his house, his furniture, his refrigerator and most of his clothes. All he owns are a change of clothes and his college diploma.

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.