Ethnic war in ex-Yugoslav republics fought through murder, terror, theft

May 08, 1992|By Dallas Morning News

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Western observers say one uncontested truth about Yugoslavia's vicious civil war is that the combatants are fighting not just for territory but for ethnic domination and are deliberately producing the largest wave of ,, European refugees since World War II.

Murder, terror and theft -- of everything from televisions to truckloads of United Nations emergency food relief -- have helped drive more than 1 million Croats, Muslims and Serbs from their homes, including 600,000 people in Croatia and 450,000 in Bosnia.

"They [the winners] often either drive the other ethnic groups out or they kill them. That's clearly the pattern," said one Western diplomat, bitter at the world's failure to intervene or protect the displaced.

The stories told by individual refugees, although difficult to verify or refute, reflect that pattern.

Hasic R. Habib says he became a refugee because the federal army demolished his village with tank and artillery fire.

"Our homes were completely destroyed," said the former militiaman who once lived near Zvornik, on the Bosnian border with Serbia. "We had only rifles. We never really fired a shot."

A young woman named Rahima, a former neighbor, says she fled because of Serb paramilitary units, who strolled through the ruins after the shooting stopped.

"They went through the village," she said, as her neighbors noddedagreement. "If they found someone, they shot him."

Among the victims was her husband, she said.

For the past year, Serb and Croat forces have fought a brutal battle for control of eastern Croatia.

Those lands are heavily inhabited by Serbs, who reject Croatia's independence and hope to annex their territory to what is left of Yugoslavia -- the republics of Serbia and Montenegro.

To seize and hold these territories, Serb paramilitary units aided by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army have launched a war against Croatia. That war now has spread to Bosnia-Herzegovina, a formerly peaceful republic caught between the two other warring republics.

With the Yugoslav army restricting itself mostly to tank and artillery bombardments of Muslim and Croat cities, the Bosnian ground war is being waged primarily by an assortment of professional soldiers, militiamen and armed robbers in uniform who call themselves "irregulars," or paramilitary groups.

These forces show so little respect for the Geneva Convention requirements on treatment of prisoners that Red Cross officials decided to print them on pocket-sized, glossy cards for distribution.

Even long after the shooting stops, paramilitary groups have killed prisoners and civilians, burned homes, driven survivors out of their villages at gunpoint and shot at buses carrying women and children to safety.

Western diplomats and other officials blame most of these atrocities on Serb irregulars, who with the help of the Yugoslav army have conquered one-third of Croatia and almost two-thirds of Bosnia.

In Bosnia alone, Serbs are suspected of nine sniping attacks on refugee buses, of forcibly deporting non-Serbs in Kupres, and of burning Muslim homes in Foca and in the Drina River valley around Zvornik, according to Western observers.

In Croatia, U.N. military observers watched helplessly as Serb irregulars rousted the non-Serb residents of one war-torn village, piled them into a bus at gunpoint, and pushed them out, just in front of a minefield.

But the war has been dirty on all sides. Croats, Muslims and Serbs are all believed to have tortured prisoners of war, according to Red Cross officials.

And just as the smoke from burning Muslim homes hangs over Bosnia, rural Croatia bears the scars of Serb homes that have been demolished by Croatian explosives teams.

"They want to keep these people from coming home," said Judith Kumin, head of Belgrade's U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' office. "And the best way to ensure that people do not return home is to destroy their houses.

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