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Bosnian Muslims Return to Sad Remnants of War : Balkans: With the tables turned, the exiled come home. They find a town too devastated to recognize, and an enemy too pitiful to hate.

September 28, 1995|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSANSKA KRUPA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Venira Ternicic came home the other day after several years to find three of this town's last four Serbs living in her apartment. But they were so old and feeble, she didn't have the heart to evict them.

So Ternicic and her parents chose to move into another apartment in a building next door, one that had been abandoned by fleeing Serbs.

"I was furious at what happened to this town," said Ternicic, a 30-year-old lawyer. "I was born here, this was my home. But at the moment I saw [the elderly Serbs], the fury settled down. It didn't go away, but it was smaller. I can't blame them."

The Ternicic family is among hundreds, maybe thousands, of Muslims who have started to return to Bosanska Krupa and other villages and towns recently recaptured by government forces in northwestern Bosnia. The government's sweeping offensive has left them and their Croat allies holding half of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Like Venira Ternicic, many of those returning were brutally expelled in the spring and summer of 1992, when Bosnian Serbs seized most of the country and drove out non-Serbs, then torched their homes and blew up their mosques.

Bosanska Krupa became a divided city: The Muslims were forced over the Una River onto the western bank, which was subsequently shelled and sniped at until most of the houses were in ruins. The more prosperous eastern side became Serbian and was left more or less intact. The bridges connecting the two sides collapsed or were destroyed.

The Serbs who lived here apparently fled ahead of the government offensive that took control of all of Bosanska Krupa 11 days ago. Four old Serbs were left behind, including Stoja Cursko, one of the people living in the Ternicic apartment.

Cursko said her husband, Stevo Kubet, 74, was too sick to move, so they decided to stay and hope for the best.

"I thought if they [Muslims] came to my door, I would beg them not to harm me," Cursko, 61, said nervously, huddled with her husband and another elderly Serb man in the apartment's cluttered, dark living room. "I know they must feel offended when they see what the Serbs did to their houses. It was senseless to burn the houses. I feel bad for them, but I hope they will be honest with us."

She said that after hearing the shelling and explosions all around for several days, she finally ventured out to find water. So far, the soldiers have treated her well. Some of her "new Muslim neighbors," she said, have brought her a little food.

Next door, Vasvija Pasalic, 68, returned to find her apartment a terrible, filthy mess and all her belongings long gone. She did, however, recognize her washing machine, up on the fourth floor in someone else's apartment, and has recovered that.

"The Chetniks [Serbs] threw us out of our apartment," the Muslim woman said, recalling the day three years ago when she and her husband, an ambulance driver, were expelled. "I had to leave in such a hurry that I had to leave behind my false teeth."

Pasalic's husband died during their exile in Bihac, a nearby enclave that remained in government hands, however precariously, throughout the war. When he died, the government waited 40 days and then sent a young woman and her child to live with Pasalic, she said. As soon as she learned her apartment in Bosanska Krupa was available again, she jumped at the chance to return.

Cursko, the Serb, began to weep at the memory of Pasalic's husband.

"He was an honest man," Cursko said. "We lived here before the war like brothers. When this happened, it was hell."

Newly "liberated" Bosanska Krupa, during a visit earlier this week, had taken on a festive look. Government troops only recently accustomed to victory of any sort festooned the city with banners and posters. One, strung across a damaged bridge over the Una leading to the Serb side, said: "Welcome home. You were always Bosnian."

Another huge banner bearing the Bosnian fleur-de-lis flapped from a medieval fortress above the city. The fortress, government soldiers said, was used to imprison Muslims and then as a sniping position.

The army took over the town's hotel, placed stereo speakers in one window and on a recent afternoon blasted the town with propaganda folk songs. "We are Allah's soldiers," went one song. "We fight for Islam. We are not afraid of anything." Young people danced to the music.

Many of the government soldiers were wearing captured Serb uniforms.

Rifet Patkovic, a Muslim 72-year-old veteran of World War II, returned to his home on the Serb side of Bosanska Krupa to find it had been destroyed. "They even put trash inside the house!" the man moaned, his blue eyes welling with tears.

Patkovic said Serbian gunmen captured him in 1992 as he desperately tried to hide in his basement. They held him for a while, and then he was released to Bihac.

Rebuilding now, at his age and with what he has been through, seems unlikely without money.

"Only if we have lots of money [can we rebuild]. We don't even have money for cigarettes," he said. "We used to live like good neighbors [with the Serbs], but they're not here anymore. If you see a house that is not damaged, you know it was a Serb house. We will use those houses."

Across the river, in the devastated Muslim section, Sefik Hafizovic stood with a scythe in one hand as he picked up debris on his property.

"Maybe I'll stay, maybe I won't," he said, having returned here for the first time in three years and five months. "Half of my family is dead, the other half is alive. We were glad to see we still had a house."

Hafizovic said he will wait to see how the government's battle fortunes go before deciding whether to bring his family home again. But his notion of reconciliation is limited.

Those enemies who did not take up guns against the Muslims of Bosanska Krupa can be tolerated, even welcomed, he said. But, "those who shot at us, if they come here, I would shoot them."

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