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Slavic Muslims Are Kosovo's Unseen Refugees

Thousands of Bosniaks are being driven from their homeland by ethnic Albanians --who share their religion but not their nationality.

December 04, 1999|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Belief in the same God is no shield against the fierce nationalism of ethnic Albanian extremists in Kosovo.

Thousands of Slavic Muslims, who refer to themselves as Bosniaks, have fled the Serbian province since NATO-led peacekeeping troops rolled in nearly six months ago. Bosniak refugees here say they are being driven out by ethnic Albanians, most of them fellow Muslims.

"Albanians have only one religion: nationalism," human rights leader Sefko Alomerovic said in a telephone interview from the town of Novi Pazar in a predominantly Muslim region of southwestern Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia.

At least 51 Bosniaks have been slain, or were kidnapped and disappeared, in Kosovo since the NATO-led force arrived June 12, according to Alomerovic. Serbian repression before and during North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes this spring and ethnic Albanian attacks that followed have driven about 80% of the Bosniak minority from the province, he estimated.

Almost 240,000 refugees, most of them Serbs, have fled Kosovo since the air war ended, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated Nov. 16. Although no official figures exist for Bosniaks who have fled the province, an estimated 7,500 escaped during NATO's 78-day air war and 12,500 more fled after peacekeepers arrived.

One of the refugees, a 21-year-old economics student nicknamed Hari, left his village near the southwestern Kosovo city of Prizren in August after ethnic Albanians accused his family of stealing 21 cows during the NATO bombing.

Hari, who did not want to be identified because his parents are still at risk in Kosovo, said the charge was a pretext to force him and his brother to leave.

Both hid in their village during the war to escape the Yugoslav army draft, he insisted. But now that the United Nations is in charge of Kosovo and the ethnic Albanian majority dominates, life isn't any better for Bosniaks than it was under Serbian rule, he said.

"I was never able to explain to the Albanians who I was. I didn't know the language," he said. "And whenever I tried to explain to Serb cops that I was a Muslim [Bosniak], not an Albanian, I got beaten up."

Hari is one of several thousand refugees from Kosovo and elsewhere in Serbia now stuck in several camps in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His camp is in the Sarajevo suburb of Rajlovac. Hari and seven other men share a tent, with only a small wood stove for heat.

The tent has only six single beds, so four of the men have to double up at night. That is progress from just a few days ago, when 13 men shared half a dozen beds. The refugees sleep a few yards from Bosnia's busiest highway.

Bosnia's government and its people are angry at what is happening to Bosniaks in Kosovo, but they say they can't do much to help because their own country is still struggling to recover from 3 1/2 years of war among Muslims, Serbs and Croats.

That conflict ended four years ago this month with a peace accord negotiated in Dayton, Ohio.

The suffering of Bosnian Muslims was worldwide news back then. But now that Slavic Muslims are victims in Kosovo, activists trying to help them can't get foreign governments to take notice, Alomerovic said.

"This is not just 'ethnic cleansing,' " said Alomerovic, who heads the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Sandjak, a Muslim region of southwestern Serbia. "This can even be called genocide, which, unfortunately, is being carried out in front of the eyes of international forces, who are silent and cover up these crimes.

"In spite of all this violence and expulsions," he said, "not a single statement of international or civilian military forces has even mentioned that a Bosniak's house was burned or a Bosniak was killed."

The NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, the U.N. administration there and ethnic Albanian leaders repeatedly have condemned attacks on civilians, but the slayings and kidnappings of Bosniaks, Serbs and other minorities continue. So does the exodus of refugees.

Alomerovic's human rights group has sent a 55-page report to foreign governments on the plight of Kosovo's Bosniaks, ethnic Turks and Roma. It includes several accounts of slayings, kidnappings and intimidation blamed on ethnic Albanian extremists.

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