Overcrowded ferry flees bombardment of Dubrovnik

November 15, 1991|By Peter S. Green | Peter S. Green,Special to The Sun

ABOARD THE FERRYBOAT SLAVIJA -- They crammed into the fume-filled car deck; they sat on suitcases and plastic bags. They retched in hallways and bathrooms.

Three thousand refugees from the besieged Croatian port of Dubrovnik crowded onto the ferryboat Slavija -- built to hold 1,200 passengers -- fleeing the devastation wrought on their city by six weeks of siege and two weeks of heavy bombardment from land, sea and air by the federal Yugoslav People's Army.

The trip was organized by the European Community to remove its cease-fire monitors from Dubrovnik after all efforts at ending the Yugoslav army's attack on the city ended in failure and their hotel was shelled by the federal forces.

But it also took out women, children and the elderly from refugee hotels that had been shelled repeatedly.

For nearly the length of the siege, the city has been without electricity, running water and adequate food supplies.

As the Slavija docked in Zelenika, a physician on board said that the trip had been "hellish" so far.

Two people had suffered heart attacks, and a woman had gone into labor. The physician said that many people would have to be taken off because they could not survive any longer in what she called the appalling conditions on board.

Today the Slavija will bring the refugees to new shelters in Rijeka, a Croatian port farther north.

Some stretchers were set up on the car deck, and intravenous feeds hung from the grimy heating pipes.

As the ship left Dubrovnik's charred and smoking harbor, it ran into a fierce Adriatic storm.

Waves 6 to 8 feet high lifted the ship and sent it crashing back down into the waves. Below decks, old women in starched white folk headdresses sat moaning against bulkheads, clicking their rosaries. Small children screamed and babies bawled.

People vomited everywhere.

Some of these people had been bombed out of their homes by the Yugoslav army's advance on Dubrovnik, then bombed again out of the summer resort hotels where they were packed six and seven to a room, spending three or four days at a time in basement bomb shelters.

"These people, what they have experienced, it goes on, it goes on, it goes on," said one EC monitor, shaking his head.

Before the ship left Dubrovnik, refugees crowded up the ship's car ramp while families said tearful goodbyes at the quayside.

A man whose leg had recently been amputated was carried aboard on another's back.

Cabins were sold to those who could afford them, and wounded people on stretchers were left in the quayside in the cold rain because there was no place for them.

Dubrovnik city officials, desperate to force their citizens to fight a battle for their city, have barred men between the ages of 16 and 60 from leaving the city.

Croatian militia marched several dozen men off the boat. A crowd on the dock jeered.

Families were split apart as fathers and teen-age sons said goodbye to wives, mothers and children.

The departure left Dubrovnik's remaining citizens feeling lost and betrayed, afraid that their last protection from an all-out bombardment by the federal army had gone.

"Let there be no illusion. The function of this boat is to ease the hTC conscience of the European Community," said Dr. Slobodan Lang, a Croatian physician organizing relief work in Dubrovnik.

"Now," Dr. Lang added, "there will be a massacre."

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