Fighting grows fiercer in Bosnia-Herzegovina Hundreds killed in past two weeks

April 18, 1992|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BIJELJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The bodies have been cleared away. But blood is still smeared on walls and doorways -- testimony to the bloodletting under way in the latest former Yugoslav republic to declare independence.

This is a virtual ghost town, except for a few families huddled in basements living by candlelight and subsisting on dwindling supplies of canned food. They listen anxiously to the rat-tat-tat of sniper machine-gun fire or the explosion of mortars.

Life among neighbors -- Croats, Serbs and Muslims -- has been hell.

Nasa Bajramovic's 18-year-old son was dragged out of the front door and shot at point-blank range as she looked helplessly on.

"They just kept pumping bullets into him, his body was jumping, jumping. They were enjoying it. It was [Serb paramilitary leader] Arkan's men. He has brought evil to our town. Evil."

Red circles ring the Muslim woman's eyes. She has a desperate look. Until recently she was one of many Muslims living peacefully side-by-side with Serbs in this city.

Across the Drina River, thousands of people from the same town wait in despair in a sports stadium for refugees. They are Serbs who fear retribution from Muslim "green beret" units. They may physically have escaped the carnage. But the horror lives on in their minds.

One woman sobs out of control. Her little girl was killed in sniper fire. Another girl claims to have been repeatedly raped. An elderly woman helps her husband shuffle painfully along, his legs bruised from a brutal beating.

What happened in Bijeljina is chillingly reminiscent of the events at the start of the seven-month war in neighboring Croatia that ended in January.

At least 10,000 people died in Croatia's nationalist carnage. Already in Bosnia, in just two short weeks, hundreds have lost their lives.

Some 150,000 have fled their homes, according to U.N. officials.

The fighting, as in Croatia, is about dividing up land. It is also, in many minds, about something else. It is bringing back a specter from the past: the specter of fascism, which is being evoked by the Serb and Croat warlords now instigating the fighting in Bosnia.

As a senior Western diplomat in Belgrade put it, "What is worrying is that you are now getting national socialism -- i.e. fascism -- rather than democracy rushing into the ideological void left by the crumbling of communism."

Take Bijeljina -- followed rapidly by a series of other towns. The fighting was led by one Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan, known simply as Arkan. He is one of the most feared Serb paramilitary leaders. His Serb irregular forces did much of the fighting in Croatia.

They are now leading what he refers to as the "liberation" of Serbian enclaves whose people want to be annexed to Serbia.

His weapons are supplied by the Serb-led Yugoslav army, which is poised to move into "liberated" towns like Bijeljina, although Washington has warned against such a move.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ralph Johnson has been dispatched to this area along with the first of five planeloads of U.S. emergency assistance scheduled to be flown to the war-ravaged state this weekend.

Mr. Johnson will also visit Belgrade, where he will express Washington's "grave concerns regarding Serbian aggression in Bosnia-Herzegovina," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters.

Mr. Arkan's vocabulary and explanations for his attacks might well give Washington cause for concern. He and other ultranationalist paramilitaries, chiefs of the Serb-led army and Serbian political leaders -- including Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Serbs in Bosnia, and Serbia's president Slobodan Milosevic -- speak from the lexicon of racism and ultranationalism.

They assert that Serbs always act in self-defense against an alliance of Croats and Muslims determined to kill all Serbs, destroy all Serb cultural monuments, rape Serb women and so on. They evoke unproven massacres of children and women. The Croats take the same tone against the Serbs; so, to a lesser degree, do the Muslims.

The reality is that both Serb and Croat forces are fighting to grab land they claim in this ethnically volatile central republic long known as the "powder keg of the Balkans."

The Muslims who make up 45 percent of the republic's 4.5 million population ironically can lay claim to the least land since they are mostly concentrated in the towns. That is why Bosnia's president, Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, has the greatest interest in keeping Bosnia an integral state. But he has now abandoned his policies of compromise that had kept the republic back from the brink of civil war until now.

Further complicating matters, the areas being fought over in Bosnia are far from clear-cut. Over the years, the three nationalities have intermingled and intermarried so much that trying to separate them out is like trying to unscramble an egg.

The task of trying to unscramble that egg fell this week to special U.N. envoy Cyrus Vance.

When he arrived in Belgrade on his way to Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, his weary face and pessimistic remarks indicated that he, like most outside observers, was not holding out much hope.

One thing he did rule out from the beginning was the deployment of a fresh U.N. peacekeeping force in addition to the 14,000 now being deployed in Croatia. Mr. Vance said that the United Nations simply did not have the money.

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