Serb Shelling Hits Crowd of Refugees in Stadium; Cross-Border Fire Traps Fleeing Bosnians

The Washington Post
July 16, 1992

SLAVONSKI BROD, Croatia, July 15 – The blood-letting in Bosnia spilled over the border into Croatia today as a salvo of Serb artillery shells fell on a stadium packed with Bosnian refugees, killing at least eight and wounding scores more.

“People were torn apart, the wounded were screaming for help, there were bodies all over the ground,” said Darko Jankovic, a photographer who arrived at the stadium moments after 15 shells fired from nearby Serb-held Bosnian territory crashed into it.

“It was a mess. Everybody was trying to get out, some of them carrying the wounded,” said Marko Cenic, a stunned refugee who was among the 3,000 crowded into the stadium here. Cenic, who was slightly wounded by a shell fragment that sliced into his knee, used terse phrases to describe the scene around him — a severed leg, a mutilated arm, bodies in blood.

A doctor at Slavonski Brod hospital said at least 35 of the wounded were in serious to critical condition, nine of them with severe head injuries. “It was a bloodbath,” the doctor said. “The shells smashed right into the middle of the stadium. They were blown to pieces.”

Most of the refugees were members of Bosnia’s Slavic Muslim-led defense forces or draft-age Muslim men routed from their homes by powerful Serb militia forces seeking to secure control of most of the former Yugoslav republic. Over the past week, the outgunned Muslims have been fleeing here by the thousands in the face of a new Serb offensive, some of them swimming for their lives across the Sava River boundary that separates Bosnia from Croatia.

A policeman here said there was no doubt the shells were fired from Serb positions across the river and were aimed at the stadium. “The Serbs knew they were there,” the officer said.

Since most of the refugees had been combatants in Bosnia’s three-month-old factional conflict, they were being held at the stadium for repatriation by Croatian authorities, in accordance with an agreement between the two republics.

Local officials said that the first two or three Serb shells, which landed just outside the stadium, triggered panic among the refugees and set off a stampede for the exits. Police fired shots into the air in an attempt to regain control, local officials said, but the next dozen shells landed seconds later, and square on target.

The stadium is less than a mile from an underground shelter where Croatian Vice President Mate Granic was briefing a delegation of two dozen diplomats, relief workers and journalists who came here for a first-hand look at the worsening refugee crisis spawned by the Bosnian war. In the midst of his presentation, a loud “thump” of incoming artillery overhead raised worried eyebrows around the room; minutes later, several of Granic’s aides rushed in with word of the carnage.

“It was 100 percent intentional,” Granic said, describing the stadium attack as part of the overall Serb offensive to secure undisputed control of northen Bosnia. Granic also used the occasion to renew Croatia’s call for U.N. military intervention to stem the Serb tide in Bosnia and for international financial support to help Croatia deal with the hundreds of thousands of Bosnian refugees streaming across its borders.

Croatia — a cash-strapped nation of 4.5 million people that just lost a territorial war with its own well-armed Serb minority — has threatened to close its borders to further Bosnian refugees because it cannot afford the $60 million monthly cost of housing and feeding the 660,000 already here. Nearby Western countries, such as Italy and Austria, have refused to accept Bosnian refugees and are offering only limited financial aid to Croatia.

Officially, the civil war in Croatia stopped seven months ago, with a U.N.-monitored truce. But in border towns like Slavonski Brod, the terror and bloodshed have increased since Serbs began waging war next-door in Bosnia. There are now about 35,000 refugees in Slavonski Brod, and Serb mortar attacks on and around the town have become daily occurances.

Local officials said 70 civilians have been killed here since March, including five children who lost their lives when a Serb mortar round slammed into a playground. After today’s attack, the Bosnians being held at the stadium were allowed to leave town in a dispirited, ragtag caravan. Some of them shuffled along on foot, others rode in dusty cars or on farm carts pulled by tractors.

“The Croatians want us to go back to Bosnia,” said Vedid, a 36-year-old Muslim policeman who said he feared he would be shot if he returned to his home. “But we don’t have anywhere to go. The Serbs are in the towns with heavy weapons.”

As he stopped outside the hospital where doctors were trying to save the lives of his compatriots, Vedid glanced at the passing Bosnians and said he had no idea where they were going. They were just heading out of town, away from the war.

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.