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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Serb Refugees Flee to Sarajevo for Safety

Bosnia: City once under siege by their ethnic kin now provides shelter to those who oppose Milosevic.

April 05, 1999|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — "The center of Belgrade is burning!" a newspaper hawker shouted from the steps of Sarajevo's central market Sunday as Catholics attended Easter services, Muslims strolled in the sunshine and Serbs who fled Yugoslavia before the NATO bombardment began caught their breath in a city no longer synonymous with war.

Only four years ago, Sarajevo was branded the most dangerous place on Earth. But this city that was targeted by one of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's previous ethnic campaigns is now a haven for those who want no part in the conflict over the "ethnic cleansing" of the Serbian province of Kosovo. Serbia is the dominant of the two remaining republics of Yugoslavia.

Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, has slowly been bled of its once-vibrant intellectual community in a decade of murderous power plays by Milosevic. Remaining moderates left in the first days of the NATO assault or have gone into hiding.

But the Serbian influx into Sarajevo is small because Yugoslav authorities have virtually closed the borders to fighting-age men and even women who can contribute to the war effort.

Evidence of an exodus is mostly anecdotal. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has had few requests for assistance in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital--the only yardstick by which the arrivals can be measured.

But the arrival of even a small contingent of Yugoslav Serbs who feel safe here is heartening for Sarajevans nostalgic for their prewar days as a model of multicultural living and tolerance.

"I feel perfectly safe here, as strange as that may sound," said one young Belgrade refugee who, like most taking shelter here, asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation against relatives still in Yugoslavia.

"When I found myself headed for Sarajevo, thinking about how I would have a shower first, then make some phone calls and then get a good night's sleep, I realized what a crazy time we live in," she said.

During the 3 1/2 years that Serbian nationalists besieged Sarajevo with mortars, artillery and sniper fire, water and electricity were rare commodities, and food convoys often were thwarted by Serbian forces. Cold, hunger, death and despair over the outside world's seeming indifference were the hallmarks of daily life.

Today, while still scarred with shattered buildings, the city is alive. The warren of ancient stone shops in the Bascarsija Muslim quarter has been refurbished and reopened to sell the copperware and jewelry that have been Bosnian trade goods since the Middle Ages. Modern buildings such as the Zetra sports complex built for the 1984 Winter Olympics and the twin Unis Towers--the blazing image of the siege of Sarajevo--are undergoing restoration and are again in use.

Legions of nongovernmental agencies throng the city to help repair Bosnia's war damage, the workers patronizing new gas stations, restaurants and boutiques selling designer clothing.

The atmosphere of recovery remains a well-kept secret among most Yugoslavs, as the state-controlled media in Belgrade continue to deride Bosnia-Herzegovina as a Muslim fundamentalist stronghold. But many of those with personal ties here have been convinced otherwise.

"There are not huge numbers coming because most who opposed Milosevic left earlier, and the borders are virtually closed now," said Rajko Zivkovic, director of a small news agency here and a member of the Serbian Civic Council that advocates Bosnian re-integration.

He said Serbs who left Sarajevo for Belgrade during the war want to come back now.

Although Sarajevo leaders insisted during wartime that Yugoslavs of all ethnic backgrounds should feel at home here, many of the Serbs who made up a third of the capital's population moved out. Today, less than 10% of Sarajevo's population is Serbian.

One Sarajevo Serb who fought against his ethnic brethren in the 1992-1995 conflict observed that those who took refuge in Belgrade often have no homes to come back to. Empty dwellings were usually occupied by Bosnian refugees.

Tensions still run high between those who abandoned the cause of a multicultural Sarajevo and those who stayed to fight for it.

But moderate Yugoslav Serbs who, despite the war, nurtured ties with friends and relatives in Bosnia have been showing up on their doorsteps.

One Belgrade scholar who arrived here by bus last week brought only her thesis notes and a few changes of clothing. With her brother unable to leave Belgrade because of the Yugoslav army's mobilization and her mother refusing to leave without him, the young graduate student exudes the hope of most exiles that her stay here will be fleeting.

If not, she says, Sarajevo is comfortingly familiar.

"Some of my friends went to Hungary, but they tell me they feel how foreign they are there," said the scholar, whose opposition to Milosevic made her feel endangered. "Coming to Sarajevo feels less like leaving [Belgrade], because we have the same language and experience of having been in the same country. Psychologically, there is not so big a rift."

But Bosnia remains deeply divided even 3 1/2 years after the fighting ended with the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace accord. Most of the Serbs live in the Serbian republic within Bosnia, from which most members of other ethnic groups were expelled. Tensions there have risen sharply, as most sympathize with Milosevic.

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