Orphans fleeing Sarajevo Serbian forces halt bus, split group by ethnicity

August 03, 1992|By John F. Burns | John F. Burns,New York Times News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- After two orphans were killed in a sniper attack on a bus bound for Germany Saturday night, the surviving young refugees resumed their journey yesterday and immediately fell afoul of the "ethnic cleansing" policies of the Serbian nationalists besieging this city.

The children, many of them infants and all younger than 4 years old, were secured to the bench seats of an old intercity bus with torn sheets when automatic rifle fire burst out at dusk as the bus traveled a stretch of a cross-city boulevard known to Sarajevans as "Sniper Alley."

The shock of the fusillades that killed a 14-month-old boy and a mentally handicapped girl who was nearly 3 years old had hardly sunk in before Serbian officials added to the misery by halting the bus on the outskirts of Sarajevo yesterday morning and dividing the children by ethnic group.

Nine of the 48 survivors of the sniper attack were separated from the others and prevented from traveling on after their names were identified as being Serbian, according to Vera Zoric, the director of the Ljubica Ivezic orphanage in Sarajevo, from which the children had departed.

"Is there anything to say?" asked Mrs. Zoric, 51, a psychologist. "We have used up all the words there are to describe the savagery and inhumanity to which we have been subjected."

Since early April, Serbian nationalists have used a self-proclaimed policy of "ethnic cleansing" to drive Muslims and Croats from wide areas of this newly independent country, creating Serbian enclaves that have been forged into an autonomous Serbian state occupying two-thirds of Bosnia.

With the orphans, the policy was effectively turned around. Children that Serbian officials deemed to be Serbs were forced to stay in the suburb of Ilidza, an area controlled by Serbs, while children of other ethnic origins were permitted to continue their journey.

When dusk fell last night, supervisors at the Ljubica Ivezic orphanage, in an old convent building high on a Sarajevo hillside, said that they had no knowledge of what had become of the children who had been identified as Serbs.

The other children, said to be confused but otherwise calm after a night spent sleeping on the floor of a restaurant near the site of the sniper attack, escaped the area by nightfall yesterday and spent the second night of their journey in a hotel in Fojnica, a Croatian-held town about 35 miles west of here.

The entire incident, starting with the decision to begin evacuating the children on an unescorted bus at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, a time when sniper fire is often intense, seemed to capture the desperation that characterizes Sarajevo.

By last night, those involved in the evacuation of the children -- and those who had somehow failed to involve themselves, including officials of the United Nations who had been approached several days ago for help in the effort -- were scrambling to avoid blame.

The orphanage director, Mrs. Zoric, who said she had agreed to allow the children to leave for Germany despite apprehensions about the dangers, struggled for words as she watched the evening news on Sarajevo television, which showed pictures of the two dead children, Roki Sulejmanovic, a Muslim boy, and Vedrana Glavas, a Croatian girl, lying on a steel-topped table in a Bosnian government health clinic near the site of the attack.

A doctor said that the boy died instantly of a bullet wound to the head and that the girl died at the clinic of a bullet wound to her chest.

According to accounts of the sniper attacks that were pieced together from interviews with Mrs. Zoric, paramilitary policemen who went to the children's rescue while the bus was under fire, and the doctors who struggled to save the life of the small girl, the sniper fire erupted about 10 minutes after the bus set out from the orphanage in the central district of Bjelave.

It was headed westward toward a point where the Serbian siege lines are interrupted by a Croatian-held district, Stup. The white-painted bus was not marked in any way to indicate its mission.

As the bus neared Stup, automatic rifle fire struck the bus from an area of crudely built houses in Nedzarici, a Serbian-held district that abuts the Sarajevo airport.

Zoran Bosnjak, 21, a Croatian policeman who reached the bus within minutes of the attack, said that the driver told him that the snipers fired first at the tires, then fired through the windows at the children, many of whom were so small that they were hardly visible.

Mr. Bosnjak said that a Croatian militia unit allied to the Bosnian forces raced from beneath a highway overpass and loaded the surviving children into a mini-van and several cars for the trip to Stup.

Mrs. Zoric said that she first heard of the attack on the late-night television news. Yesterday morning, without transport of her own to reach the children, she awaited word that the children had passed safely through Ilidza en route to the Croatian port of Split. From there the children were to be taken to a Trappist monastery at Magdeburg, in eastern Germany.

About an hour after the bus had set off again yesterday, Mrs. Zoric's daughter called to tell her that nine children had been taken off the bus at Ilidza.

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