YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Bosnia War May End as It Began : Balkans: A new wave of 'ethnic cleansing' has forced Muslims and Croats out of Serb-held areas, refugees say.


ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The night Arkan's men came, Husein Muratovic hid in an animal shed, terrified, while the most dreaded of Bosnian Serb paramilitary squads shot up his home and stole all of his valuables.

"If they had seen me, they would have shot me too," the 65-year-old man recalled Wednesday. He was caught the day after the raid and, with more than 6,000 other Muslims and Croats, expelled last weekend from his lifelong home.

As a U.S.-brokered cease-fire takes effect in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a new wave of ethnic expulsions, reportedly accompanied by rape and murder, is forcing thousands of non-Serbs from the Serb-held towns of northwest Bosnia. If peace really is at hand, the war is winding down for these people much as it began for others, when a practice known as "ethnic cleansing" became synonymous with the war in Bosnia and earned international scorn for those responsible.

In the early months of the 3 1/2-year war, and again now, some of the most brutal expulsions are attributed to Zeljko Raznjatovic, the paramilitary leader known as Arkan.

Late last month, his people moved into Sanski Most, a town about 30 miles west of the Bosnian Serb stronghold of Banja Luka, according to the Muslims and Croats who had been forced to leave before the town was retaken by government forces on Tuesday. Interviews Wednesday with these victims of "ethnic cleansing," who have reached the government-held town of Zenica, portray a steady campaign of harassment and intimidation that has left several thousand men unaccounted for.

According to the witnesses, uniformed, armed men, often with black stockings over their faces and often drunk, began by bursting into Muslim homes, always at night, and demanding money and gold under threat of death. They ransacked homes and snatched earrings from girls' ears.

Draft-age men were taken away. And thousands--mostly women, children and the elderly--were rounded up and held for nearly two weeks in a detention camp with little food or water before being driven to the front line. Then they had to make their way through forests and minefields until reaching safety.

In the center of the village of Kijevo, south of Sanski Most, men were rounded up and beaten with sledgehammers by about 10 Serbian soldiers, recalled a 55-year-old woman who did not want her name used. Four of the men were killed, she said. Three others were led away, their fates unknown. A 15-year-old boy was forced to chew on a cap wet with the blood of his father, who had just been slain, the woman said.

"Arkan's men told us not to speak of this, or they would kill us," she said.

Mehmed Baktic, 53, said he was beaten for six hours by Arkan's men, who hauled him to a police station after finding him in a cornfield.

"I almost died," he said. "I was beaten black."

From his hiding place in the field, where he spent days, Baktic saw a group of five soldiers abduct three women. Two of the soldiers raped one of the women, then all three women were shot in the back of the head, Baktic said.

A 40-year-old woman who did not want her name used said the soldiers took away her 75-year-old father-in-law and an uncle. Then, she said, they forced her sister-in-law to take off her clothes so that they could photograph her. They did not rape her, the woman said.

And then she, like all others interviewed, was given just a couple of minutes to abandon her home or be killed. Most were transported to an overcrowded, makeshift camp, where they languished with little food for almost two weeks.

A 68-year-old man who did not want his name used said all men under 60 were separated from their families. At one point he saw trucks take away about 150 people. Dropped at a checkpoint, three young men tried to run away but were caught by the Serbs and hauled back, he said.

This region of northern Bosnia had a prewar Muslim and Croatian population of half a million. Now there are about 30,000 left, and U.N. refugee officials believe that the latest campaign of "ethnic cleansing" is a final push to rid northern Bosnia of those last minorities.

Many of those interviewed said they had lived on civil terms with some of their Serbian neighbors and that it was the arrival of Arkan that made life impossible. At the same time, many suspected that some of their former neighbors were helping Arkan's men by providing names and singling out who might have money.

U.N. officials are also concerned by the Bosnian government's decision to transfer the new refugees immediately to front-line towns, recently recaptured and perhaps not yet safe.

Los Angeles Times Articles