BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- In their zeal to "cleanse" northern Bosnia of its Muslims and Croats, Serbs who seized control of the region have deported thousands of unarmed civilians in sealed freight trains in the past month.
Hundreds of women, children and old people have been packed into each freight car for sweltering journeys into central Bosnia lasting three or more days, according to refugees who survived the ordeal.
"There was no food, no water and no fresh air," said Began Fazlip. "There was no toilet, just holes in the floor." Excrement covered the floors of the cars.
An unknown number of people, particularly children and the aged, have died in the deportations, according to first-person accounts.
"You could only see the hands of the people in the tiny ventilation holes," said an official of the SDA, the Muslim political party. "But we were not allowed to come close. It was like Jews being deported to Auschwitz."
Today, according to Muslim community leaders, there are no Muslims left in any of the major towns of northwest Bosnia, where they had made up as much as 90 percent of the population.
The method of deportation was confirmed by Stojan Zupljanin, the police chief in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina's second-biggest city and the stronghold of ethnic Serbs in Bosnia. "We arranged 'safe transportation' " for Muslims who, he said, wanted to emigrate.
With more than 1 million Bosnians made homeless by the Serb assault, passenger trains full of deportees are waiting at the borders of the former Yugoslavia for host countries willing to take them in. But movements within northern Bosnia have been almost exclusively in sealed freight trains, according to Muslim officials here.
According to eyewitnesses, the first two trains, carrying about 4,000 deportees from the town of Kozarac, passed through Banja Luka around June 12. Some were transported in passenger cars, but most were in freight cars.
"Even the people in the passenger cars looked exhausted and were in terrible shape. But the guards allowed no one to communicate with them," said an official of Merhamet, the respected Muslim charity in Banja Luka, who saw the first trains. Both the Merhamet and SDA sources are now in physical danger, and their names are not being used.
Since June 12, according to Muslim officials, freight trains packed with deportees have moved through Banja Luka regularly but after a nighttime curfew, when no citizen is allowed near the station.
A spokeswoman for the International Red Cross said last week that the organization had heard rumors of deportations in sealed freight cars but had been unable to confirm the reports.
Although the Red Cross is almost always involved in movements of civilians in war zones in civil and international wars, the Serb-controlled government of this region, known as Bosnian Krajina, reportedly had decided to restrict the group's role to cases where safe passage must be negotiated through a conflict zone.
Police Chief Zupljanin painted a rosy picture of the deportation, suggesting that the elderly men, the mothers with infants and the small children had in fact asked to be deported and specifically in a way that violates international conventions protecting civilians in wartime.
He said that the trains had been organized because "a certain number of [Muslim and Croat] citizens had expressed their wish to move to Central Bosnia." He implied that the refugees were happy to be carried in freight cars.
"None of the refugees asked for first-class carriages," he said. "None of them said, 'If you don't have a passenger train, I wouldn't go.' Anything is better than walking." He indicated that the alternative was a forced march of up to 100 miles.
Asked why police would not allow Muslim volunteers to provide food and water to the refugees, Chief Zupljanin said: "It was a safety measure."
In fact, local Serbs, who seized power and declared autonomy last spring without consulting Muslims and Croats in the region, drove the refugees at gunpoint out of the villages and towns where their families had lived for centuries, many of them say.
The Muslims were in the way of a strategic goal that extreme Serbian nationalists have promoted for years: the creation of a corridor between the republic of Serbia and Krajina, an isolated pocket of Serbs in the middle of Croatia.
Refugees from throughout northern Bosnia and Muslim officials in Banja Luka say that the Serb-controlled army, in implementing Serbian strategy, launched direct assaults using artillery, mortar, and tanks against nearly every town or large village.
Local police and militias rounded up the non-Serbs, transported them in trucks and buses to sports halls, schools and stadiums, then ordered them aboard the freight trains.