NEW YORK — It's a long way from the Bronx to Bosnia. But for Mike Radoncic and many of his friends, the war that has destroyed their European homeland with a savagery not seen since World War II is just a gunshot away.
On a quiet Saturday afternoon, men are gathering as usual around small tables at the Two-Star Cafe and Social Club north of Manhattan. Normally, they talk about their children, their jobs and upcoming soccer games organized by the city's South Slavic community. Yet today, the talk is of war and guns.
"We need money to buy weapons," says Radoncic. "We will fight to the last drop of blood and protect our people, even if the world does nothing."
Like others in the darkened cafe, the trim, intense speaker is a Muslim who emigrated to the United States from Sarajevo. He talks grimly of carnage in the capital city, which was once a peaceful home to his people as well as Croats and Serbs. Today, it is engulfed in war and dying a slow death--surrounded by Serbian troops who say they fear the creation of a Muslim-dominated state.
So far, an estimated 8,000 people have died, and some observers say the true number may be 50,000. The conflict has decimated thousands of Bosnian towns and created more than 2.5 million refugees. This week there have been reports of death camps, rape and torture that recall Nazi extermination tactics.
As Western nations deplore the growing violence--but do little to stop it--Muslim Slavs in the United States are taking matters into their own hands.
"We're raising thousands of dollars to get weapons into our homeland," says Radoncic, a 38-year-old building superintendent in Manhattan. "We're outgunned, and we have to do whatever we can to help."
It's tricky work. Radoncic and his colleagues have collected about $100,000 so far and sent it to a bank account in Germany. There, the cash is used to buy weapons, and couriers smuggle them in as best they can. Because Sarajevo is currently surrounded by Serbian troops, the pipeline has slowed to a trickle.
Similar efforts are under way in Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Toronto, according to Muhamed Sacribey, Bosnia's ambassador to the United Nations. So far, the effort is uncoordinated and sponsors are simply doing the best they can in each city. Still, several million dollars have been raised nationwide, including donations for humanitarian aid.
In Southern California, for example, nearly $2 million in food, clothing and medical supplies will be sent to Bosnia through a Croatian church organization, according to Nihad (Eric) Dzinovic, an Orange County jeweler.
"We think the U. S. government should help us with weapons," says Dzinovic, who organized the drive. "Last week, I spoke with my 90-year-old mother, who was in Sarajevo, and she said, 'Tell the world we don't need sandwiches. We need guns to defend ourselves. We need help from everyone.' "
It doesn't take much to gather funds, Sacribey notes, because many Muslim Slavs in the United States have friends and relatives in Bosnia who have been killed or wounded in the fighting. The contributions run especially high in places like New York, where the emigre community is fairly new and people have strong, recent ties to their former homeland.
"I know that $100,000 is not a great deal of money, but our position is, 'Better something than nothing,' " says Radoncic. "We believe one gun is one gun--and that means one Serb less."
The world has been roused by the spectacle of Bosnian forces fighting better-armed Serbian troops, and Radoncic's colleagues are aware of the importance of public opinion. They portray themselves as patriots acting purely in self-defense and carefully monitor news coverage. But Serbian officials in Belgrade and at the United Nations tell a vastly different story.
Indeed, they deny that their nation has anything to do with the violence in Bosnia, suggesting that the conflict is a civil war. Decrying negative publicity, they insist that the world knows only half the story and that Muslims and Croats are carrying out equally vicious reprisals against Serbs.
"The press coverage has been very one-sided and biased," says Milos Strugar, a counselor with Serbia's permanent mission to the United Nations. "When you hear of these atrocities, you only hear from Muslim and Croat victims. I'm not saying that either side is innocent, but all sides are to be blamed equally. And you don't get that picture in America and Europe."
One reason may be that Serbia's claims of non-involvement have become increasingly hard to believe, according to numerous international observers. The United States and several European countries have condemned reports of Serbian atrocities, and they also suggest that the sophisticated weaponry used by Serbian partisans in Bosnia--including jet fighters--makes it highly unlikely that the Belgrade government's large army has stayed out of the war.