U.N. Says Serbs Use Beatings, Arrests to Spur Muslims’ Flight

The Washington Post
July 23, 1992

POPUCKO, Croatia, July 22 – Serb militia forces are using threats, arrests and beatings to terrify Slavic Muslims in Bosnia-Hercegovina into fleeing their homes, U.N. officials said here today.

“A major tool being used is fear,” said Jenf Boersted, an official with the United Nations refugee agency. U.N. officials said that Serb forces have conducted a two-month campaign of intimidation against Muslims in the city of Bosanski Novi and that it is clear such tactics are being used throughout Bosnia.

The officials, who have visited Bosanski Novi and interviewed refugees from there, gave an account of the Muslims’ ordeal. They said it began when most Muslims there were fired from their jobs by the city’s new Serb government or ordered to work without pay. Then Serb militiamen burned mosques and Muslim homes, arrested hundreds of Muslim men and spread word that “a number” of Muslim civilians would be killed for every Serb slain in the continuing factional struggle for Bosnian territory.

For the past month, about 700 Muslim men have been held in a Bosanski Novi sports stadium with little food and no protection from the weather, and Serbs have beaten Muslim detainees at a makeshift prison in a hotel. Thousands of women and children have left the city, but many remain in hiding.

The plight of the Muslims of Bosanski Novi, which lies near the Croatian border in northwestern Bosnia, has forced U.N. officials to act against their humanitarian instincts. The city’s Serb rulers have tried to deport them to Croatia, making them buy tickets to be crammed into buses and trains, but the deportees were turned back at the border, Boersted said, because U.N. personnel decided “we could not assist something like this.”

“Our business is to help refugees, not create refugees,” Boersted said, adding that he pleaded with the Serb mayor of Bosanski Novi to safeguard the Muslims instead of encouraging their exodus. He said the mayor shrugged off the request.

Now, with thousands of frightened Muslims desperate to leave the city, U.N. officials said they are “hesitantly” arranging a bus and car convoy on Thursday for at least 3,500 of them. At the same time, the U.N. refugee agency is appealing for world pressure on the Serbs to give up such practices. “If {the expulsion of Bosanski Novi’s Muslims} goes through without a very strong international reaction, it would be an encouragement to repeat {it} on a much broader scale,” Boersted said.

Since full-scale warfare broke out in early April, about 1.8 million Bosnians, most of them Muslims, have been forced from their homes. Most of the world’s attention has been centered on Sarajevo, Bosnia’s besieged capital, but equal cruelties occur every day in such little known places as Bosanski Novi, whose prewar population of 50,000 was one-third Muslim. Serb militiamen prevent journalists from reaching such places, but a British official who was there recently said Muslim neighborhoods in Bosanski Novi now resemble the penned-in Jewish ghettos of World War II.

Once a Muslim decides to leave, he is required to sign two papers, relief officials said. One paper transfers ownership of his home or apartment to the city. The other paper states that the Muslim is leaving without coercion.

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.