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COLUMN ONE : Bosnia: Hell of WWII Is Relived : Few survivors of the last war think they will escape again. The world's inaction has stolen what helped sustain them before--hope.

February 06, 1995|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Even when she was just a number with a daily allotment of 3 1/2 ounces of bread, Greta Ferusic had something at the notorious Auschwitz death camp that is painfully lacking in her life today.

Half a century ago, shorn of her hair, name and dignity and destined for the ovens that had consumed her parents, the emaciated 20-year-old nurtured her frail body and imperiled soul on the precious stuff of survival called hope.

"We knew the Americans would come one day, that they would win in the end," the Holocaust survivor recalls of the last days of the last war, the fierce determination that propelled her through the earlier hell still burning in her hazel eyes. "We didn't know how long it would be, but we knew liberation would come. Now, we don't know anything."

In one of the more bitter ironies of a life already stunted by horror and humiliation, Ferusic, now 70, plods through fresh indignities each day in what fellow Jews and Sarajevans describe as the world's biggest concentration camp.

They freeze through this third winter of siege because the gunmen surrounding them siphon off their natural gas supply, block shipments of firewood and cut electricity relay lines.

They go hungry even when humanitarian deliveries manage to overcome the harassment and obstacles routinely placed in their path, because deprivation has spawned corruption, allowing most of the aid to be hijacked for the army or sold for extortionate amounts of hard currency that few Sarajevans have.

They are idle because there is no work in a capital cordoned off from the rest of the country and all but forgotten by the rest of the world.

Lives like Ferusic's--which, until three years ago, were enriched by diversity, culture and international travel--have deteriorated into daily struggles to gather enough food, fuel and water to survive.

"I don't write to my son anymore. What would I tell him? That we have water today? That we are promised electricity tomorrow? These are the themes of our lives now," Ferusic, a retired architectural professor, says mockingly of her new world, the one no longer connected to her son and grandsons living in Spain. "Once again, we have been diminished."

Jakob Finci, head of the Sarajevo Jewish community that has been whittled by death and exodus from more than 1,200 before the current war to fewer than 600 people, was born in 1943 in a concentration camp on the Adriatic island of Rab, 10 days after its liberation from Italian Fascists.

His parents returned to Sarajevo, raising their son in the peace and prosperity that were a velvet glove over the iron-fisted rule of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the wartime partisan who made the former Yugoslav federation the envy of the Communist world for four decades.

"I'm lucky that they died before this war," Finci says. "It would have been impossible for them to survive. More than 50 members of our family perished in the last war. They would not have been able to bear seeing such things happen again."

In a voice becalmed by resignation, Finci says that Western democracies missed their chance to promote a genuine new world order after the collapse of communism and that the outside world bungled the breakup of the former Yugoslav republics and left Bosnia-Herzegovina on its collision course with annihilation.

He blames Western Europe for lacking the courage to punish aggressive nationalism before it spread through the Balkans like a virus. He accuses Washington of criminal negligence in refusing to raise a higher moral voice.

"In 1941, the world was silent about the Holocaust, but eventually everyone realized evil has to be fought," Finci recalls. "We Jews don't have the right to be silent when the Muslims are in trouble. This is not a Holocaust, but it is genocide, and that is terrible enough."

Finci fears that Serbian extremists have been left to kill, rape and plunder with impunity because major Western powers have decided this bloodletting poses no risk to their own security.

And politicians at the highest levels have suggested that there is nothing that can be done to ease Sarajevans' suffering, leaving war victims feeling betrayed by the democratic powers they once envied and respected.

"It's the Balkans," British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind said in explaining the hopelessness of the crisis during a recent gathering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "We don't want another Vietnam," U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry concurred a few weeks later.

Sarajevans fear that the savagery of the conflict has bestowed validity on a Western belief--some call it a prejudice--that nothing can be done for Bosnia because it is part of a region prone to violence, that people here are born with some irrepressible compulsion to fight.

Those who are old enough to recall the roots of the last war and savvy about the politically inspired causes of today's violence dispute that judgment with all the emotion they can summon in this bleak hour.

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