Civil war turns Yugoslavia's Muslims into refugees Cast off their land, they risk losing all

May 24, 1992|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Asim Krilic is 4 years old. His main concern last week was that nobody snatch his scruffy pale blue elephant. He showed little apprehension as his mother hauled him onto yet another battered bus for yet another long and weary journey. As long as his blue elephant was with him, the world was all right.

Only in years to come will he understand what his mother, father and sister -- and hundreds of thousands of others -- feel deep in their bones. That is that in the heart of Europe a whole people -- Yugoslavia's Muslims -- is being cast off its land and forced to start a wandering life in other people's countries.

This has been obscured in the confusion of the civil war gripping Bosnia-Herzegovina. For beside Muslim refugees, there are tens of thousands of Serbian and Croatian refugees facing an uncertain future.

But it is the Muslims who stand to lose everything. As many as one in five Muslims is already a refugee. Their de facto capital, Sarajevo, is in ruins. The Serbs and Croats with whom they shared Bosnia have an ethnic homeland in Serbia or Croatia.

The Muslims have nowhere to go. Turning the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina -- in which their two million people made up the largest percentage -- into an independent state is not merely a dream for them. It is a matter of survival.

That realization was taking its toll on Azim's parents and teen-age sister. They looked exhausted as they were hastily bundled into their battered bus last week, shoved out of one makeshift refugee reception center and on to the next. They arrived in the town of Tuzla from Sarajevo, hoping to find peace and move north to Doboj, where Asim's grandparents live. But Serbian forces began bombarding Tuzla, too.

All night, while Azim slept, they listened to the thump of artillery. "Everything we had we left behind. And now they say there is fighting in Doboj. Is this what it is going to be like, being a refugee?" Fata Krilic's question needed no answer.

Yugoslavia's Muslims have always had an identity problem. Their identity may have looked solid to anyone visiting Sarajevo's old town, the Bascarcija, with its minarets, the winding Turkish alleyways and the women in Turkish-style pantaloons.

But these Yugoslav Muslims only date their history back to the 15th century. They are in fact Slavs themselves, just like their Serbian and Croatian neighbors. They just adopted Turkish names, customs and religion to escape persecution during centuries of Ottoman rule.

Bosnia is their only claim to a homeland. But even here they were insecure. Though they were the dominant nationality -- 45 percent, compared with 31 percent of Serbs and 17 percent of Croats in a population of 4.3 million -- they were never in a majority. As in a hung Parliament, they have always had to side and therefore compromise with either the Serbs or the Croats. They were known as the thinking men of the Balkans, the consensus-builders, the compromisers, the masters in the art of survival.

Balkan politicians have never played fair, as Bosnia's Muslim President Alia Izetbegovic is finding out. The Serbs and the Croats, who have always been the region's greatest powers, are effectively carving up Bosnia between them. Although most of the outside world is condemning Serbia and the Serbian-led army, Croatian paramilitary and mainline troops control roughly one-quarter of the republic.

Croats in Bosnia still insist they are partners with the Muslims. But they find it hard to explain a recent secret meeting between Serbian and Croatian leaders in Austria at which they essentially agreed how to divide Bosnia between them.

It is unclear whether the outside world will use muscle to help a country that has neither oil nor strategic importance. Even fellow Muslim countries are limiting their support to largely ineffective measures, such as expelling Yugoslavia from the Islamic Conference.

Outside countries are not rushing to a military solution. They have begun with political and economic measures: The U.S. and EC ambassadors have been withdrawn from Serbia, the United States has recalled its military attache and stopped flights by the Yugoslav airline to the United States. More sanctions are to follow. But the remaining diplomats here are speculating for the first time about an international punitive action if non-military sanctions fail to stop the Bosnian war.

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