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Anguish Over the Missing Keeps Deepening in Bosnia : Balkans: Returning refugees still don't know fates of fathers, brothers, sons. Cease-fire won't end their pain.

October 08, 1995|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ORASAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Mirsad Vajzovic said goodby to his family three years ago in a cramped schoolroom just off the main road here. He dug deep into his pockets and handed his wife his final possessions. He had a pair of fishing lures, the keys to the house and his wristwatch.

They spoke only a few words. The tears said the rest.

"We knew one of the guards, so the guard brought him into our classroom just to kiss the kids," says his wife, Atifa. "He told us not to worry. After that, we left the school on foot. He stayed and was in the window. I saw him watch us walk away."

Atifa Vajzovic and her two children hiked several miles to the next village, where they and hundreds of other Bosnian Muslims lived for six months as captives of the Bosnian Serbs. Their fate was determined by gender and age: That day, only women, children and elderly men left the school, which the Serbian rebels were using as a sorting center for their terrified Muslim neighbors-turned-enemies.

Vajzovic, a textile worker who was 37 at the time, has been missing ever since. In all, about 200 men, some as young as 16, who were held at the Orasac primary school and at a nearby river crossing have vanished. They account for nearly one-third of the missing people in the Bihac area of northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to the Bosnian government's missing-persons coordinator in Bihac.

The local men do not appear on rosters of captured, killed or wounded. The International Committee of the Red Cross cannot locate them, and the Bosnian Serbs have never offered them in prisoner exchanges, including one in 1993 that allowed many Muslims--among them Atifa Vajzovic and her children--to move to government-controlled Bihac, a U.N.-declared "safe area."

The horrible fear is that Mirsad Vajzovic and the others are dead, perhaps buried by a bulldozer in one of the mass graves suspected to have been dug by rebel Serbs in the woods and farmland they once controlled. The truth is only now beginning to be known as people from towns and villages recently recaptured by Bosnian government forces begin returning to rebuild their lives--and piece together the grim events of 1992.

As the world expresses outrage over the possible existence of such killing fields, the prospect brings nearly unbearable anguish to the thousands of Bosnians who have been separated from loved ones during 42 months of war.

"The hardest part is not knowing what happened," says Aida Vajzovic, 13, whose thick black hair and deep brown eyes are a carbon copy of her missing father's. "What happened to my father?"

The young girl tries to say more, but she bites her lip as her voice trembles and her eyes blur with tears. High on the kitchen wall, a photograph of her father hangs from a nail, his square jaw flickering in the candlelight, the only way to see after sundown in a town with war-wrecked utilities.

Aida still cries herself to sleep, sometimes clutching a family photo album. Her 16-year-old brother still wears his father's watch. Atifa Vajzovic still carried her husband's house keys until a month ago, when she finally relinquished them to a relative who began repairing war damage to the home.

"Aida was very fond of her father. She loved him almost too much," her mother says softly, her shoulders slumped over the kitchen table. "We are still hoping. If he is dead, I want to see the body. If he is alive, I want to see for myself."

There was one false alarm, when a truckload of bodies--42 in all, from Orasac and nearby Kulen Vakuf, where the Vajzovices lived--was handed over to the Bihac hospital by rebel Serbs. One of the body bags bore the name of Atifa Vajzovic's husband. She and her in-laws were called to confirm the identity of the remains within.

But the mangled corpse had gray hair and false teeth and was wearing a denim jacket. Her husband, known to friends as Blacky because of his hair color, had his own teeth and was wearing a green fishing jacket when he was captured. Names did not match on any of the corpses the Serbs said belonged to prisoners from the Orasac school.

It was a relief not to find her husband in the body bag, Vajzovic says, but it was also a heavy burden. Impending cease-fire or not, for Vajzovic, peace in Bosnia will come only when her husband and the 200 others shepherded away during those awful days in June, 1992, are found and properly laid to rest.

"We will find out one day, maybe only on the day we die," says Sakiba Seferovic, whose husband was among the men at the Orasac school. "Maybe they were even killed at the school. I saw one man climb onto a desk to remove a piece of shattered glass from the window. The Chetnik [Serb] just shot him dead and acted as if it was nothing."

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