‘We Cannot Go On Like This’; Bosnian Refugees in Croatia Caught Between War and Politics

The Washington Post
July 18, 1992

SAVSKI MAROF, Croatia, July 17 – About 5,000 sick and weary refugees from Bosnia-Hercegovina — driven from their homes by Bosnia’s four-month-old war with Serb forces — are stranded in filthy railroad cars here while Croatia pleads with Western countries to accept them.

As temperatures soared above 90 degrees today, the refugees lay limply in the sauna-like corridors of the cars or flopped on the dusty ground nearby. They arrived Thursday night, but they are not allowed to go to nearby towns to wash or go to the bathroom, so they do everything in the trains — eat, sleep and defecate.

They have not bathed properly for days, and they are surrounded by an overpowering stench that comes from piles of excrement beneath the unmoving cars. Many children are sick with fever or diarrhea.

“We cannot go on like this,” said Zinata Mujic, a hollow-eyed woman whose tired eyes were too dry to shed any tears. Another refugee laughed sardonically and shouted from a train window, “We are Europe’s Kurds.”

Maria Jug-Dujakovic, a Croatian social worker who is trying to comfort the refugees, shook her head in sympathy. “This is horrible. There are no words for it,” she sighed.

Croatia is overloaded with more than 660,000 refugees and is desperately seeking help. Until this week, the former Yugoslav republic, still recovering from its own war with Serb militias, willingly housed and fed its fleeing neighbors. But on Thursday the government began trying to send the latest arrivals to Western countries. The refugees cost Croatia about $66 million a month — an enormous sum for this strapped, war-ravaged country of 4.5 million people.

The refugee situation here and a few miles away at the town of Zapresic is an enormous political football that nobody wants to touch. On Thursday, the refugees were put on three separate trains with a total of about 40 cars and headed for a third former Yugoslav republic, Slovenia. But the trains stopped short of the border because neither Slovenia nor nearby Austria nor Italy would let them enter, according to Croatian officials.

Adalbert Rebic, head of Croatia’s refugee office, said the Bosnians will now stay where they are until Western nations agree to take them in. He blamed their misery on Western governments that have ignored Croatia’s repeated pleas for help with refugees and for military intervention in the Bosnian conflict.

“The responsible people from the West are sleeping a deep sleep,” he said. “If they don’t stop the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, Europe will have in some weeks 2 million more refugees.”

The refugees are Muslims, most of whom fled the Bosnian towns of Odzak and Modrica, where Bosnia’s Serb minority has used shelling and sniper fire as part of its efforts to achieve an “ethnic cleansing” of the republic, which is 44 percent Muslim and 16 percent Croat. The Serbs, who make up 31 percent of the population, already have seized about 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory.

The scene at Savski Marof, one of the last train stops before the Slovenian border, is a study in the human horrors of war. Haggard women stare out from the trains, too exhausted or distracted to tell their barefoot children to stop wandering near the excrement-smeared dirt. The train corridors are carpeted with the bodies of dozing or dazed refugees.

Some refugees have wounds that are covered with dirty bandages. Mina Kosovac, 12, prodded by a friend to lift her skirt above her bony knees, reveals fresh scars on one thigh and a white bandage on another. She was hit by mortar fragments within moments of leaving a basement shelter in her home town. But she was lucky; her grandmother was killed by the same shell.

Vahida and Enisa, 16-year-old girls traveling without parents or friends, drift among the Zapresic trains. Two months ago they had to leave their parents in Doboj, which was one of the first Bosnian towns to come under Serb attack. They went to stay with relatives in Odzak, but a few weeks ago it too was attacked.

The relatives put them on a horse-drawn cart, which took them to the Sava River, along the Bosnia-Croatia border. A truck then carried them across the river to the Croatian town of Slavonski Brod. It too has come under heavy artillery attacks in the past few days.

Croatian authorities put them on one of the Slovenia-bound trains. Vahida, like the other refugees here, has no idea where she is heading, and reality seems to be slipping away from her. “I pray to stay alive,” she whispers, apparently unaware that her life is no longer in danger.

Many of the refugees are Bosnian soldiers or draft-age men who fled in front of the advancing Serbs. The Croatians view these men as deserters and cowards, but the Bosnians disagree, saying their cause was hopeless because their weaponry was meager compared with the Serbs’.

“Their weapons are incredible,” said Mirsad, a policeman-turned-soldier-turned-refugee from Odzak, adding that the Serbs also had bulletproof vests that made them practically immune to small-arms fire. “We would shoot at them and they would get up and keep attacking.”

Croatia, in an agreement with the Bosnian government, is trying to send soldiers back to the fighting, but Mirsad and the others had a macabre turn of luck. After the stadium where they were being held in Slavonski Brod came under a Serb mortar attack two days ago, killing 12 refugees, the soldiers were released, packed into trains and sent here.

They have little more than the camouflage shirts on their back. One of the soldier-turned-refugees laughed when asked if he had any money to buy new clothes or food. “How could we have money?” he said. “We have been fighting in trenches for the last three months.”

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.