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Future Is Bleak for Bosnia's Muslim Refugees : Balkans: Victims of 'ethnic cleansing,' they find the doors of prospective havens are being closed.


PALIC, Yugoslavia — Semsa Kasic's only comforts in life are more likely tragedies she hasn't learned of yet.

The 66-year-old Muslim who was pushed from her home at gunpoint in the Bosnian village of Sepak lives for the day she can be reunited with her son, who was taken away by Serbian gunmen who looted and burned their home three months ago. She is unaware of the guerrillas' boast that they take no prisoners.

Kasic also finds solace in what she believes is a safe refuge for her 21-year-old grandson, who was studying in the city of Tuzla when the rest of the family was forced to flee.

"There was no fighting there," says the stout old woman, who has been wandering penniless since early April. She hasn't heard that Tuzla is now under heavy bombardment--the key target in a drive by the Serbian rebels to conquer all of northern Bosnia and link it to Serbia.

Most dubious of all is her assumption that once she is issued a Yugoslav passport by the same Belgrade authorities responsible for forcing her out, she will be able to travel to Austria and wait there for the war to end.

Kasic and hundreds of other Muslims driven from their Bosnian homes have been bottled up at a camp in this Serbian town on the border with Hungary because they have no documents on which to travel.

They are unaware that recently tightened immigration laws and the West's refusal to recognize the new Yugoslavia are likely to bar them from entering most countries.

While the refugees cling to faint hopes of escape, the Serbian Red Cross workers grudgingly caring for them keep the Muslims apprised of their plight and advise them to be grateful for all Serbia has done for them.

"No one in the world will take these people, except the Serbian people, and then they tell lies about us," huffed Dragana Skoric, a volunteer at the grim Palic transit camp where Bosnian refugees spend several days being "processed" before being hustled out.

Nearly 2,000 homeless Muslims were trapped in stifling train cars on the Yugoslav-Hungarian border last weekend, when Serbian authorities hesitated to send the refugees onward for fear they would disclose the circumstances of their eviction to the Western world.

The Austria-bound train was packed with victims of the Serbian rebels' policy of "ethnic cleansing," in which those not of Serbian nationality are forced from territory the Serbs want.

But Austria is one of a number of European countries that have recently tightened conditions for refugee status in deference to public resentment of the growing waves of foreigners they see as a threat to their own prosperity.

As victims of official repression, the Bosnian Muslims should be granted asylum, even under the stricter rules that took effect at the first of this month. But Austrian border guards have been turning back the beleaguered Bosnians because they have only passports from the new Yugoslavia, an alliance of Serbia and Montenegro that no major Western country recognizes.

"They are being trapped by a technicality," said Eva Maria Barki, an Austrian lawyer who traveled to the border near Palic to escort a trainload of refugees bound for Vienna. "We are now having them fill out declarations on their reasons for leaving, whether they are doing so voluntarily or under pressure."

Those who claim they are being forced from their homeland are supposed to be eligible for asylum and refugee status.

The intervention of Barki and other private lawyers and human rights activists forced a breakthrough in last weekend's crisis, with the deported Muslims allowed to leave Serbia for Hungarian refugee camps.

Those who were shepherded into Austria on Monday through Barki's efforts still faced numerous obstacles to gaining permission to stay, the lawyer's Vienna office said.

Meanwhile, new waves of desperate wanderers making their way to this border camp each day suffer the indignity of dependence on the hospitality of people whose armed forces are responsible for their plight.

At the entrance to the Palic camp stands a giant portrait of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the nationalist strongman who is accused of provoking the bloody ethnic conflicts that have killed at least 17,000 in scarcely more than a year and driven well over 2 million from their homes in Croatia and Bosnia.

The Palic camp is as well outfitted with tents and blankets as most of the crude refugee facilities that have sprung up in the impoverished ruins of Yugoslavia. But, here, there is a palpable tension created by forcing war victims to take charity from their oppressors.

"No political discussions!" shouted Lilijana Jelacic of the Serbian Red Cross, who is more warden than social worker. She was admonishing Monira Alic for recounting how Serbian guerrillas smashed everything in her home in Bijeljina and kicked out the six members of her family.

Most of those at the mercy of the staunchly nationalist camp staff have learned to perform on cue.

"It's very nice here. Serbs are the best people," Kasic insisted as Jelacic and others stood an intimidating watch over her conversation with visiting journalists. But in a moment of defiance and amid a gush of tears, the elderly Muslim reverted to her tale of horror.

"If only you could see what has happened to our home in Bosnia!" Kasic lamented. "We don't want this war. It would be better if we were all dead."

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