For Bosnian Muslims, tales of terror

August 08, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- In an unfinished mosque on the fourth floor of a building being renovated in the polyglot neighborhood called Kreuzberg, Bosnian Muslims recite a litany of terror, sorrow and death.

"In the night," says the man with blue eyes that seem to be looking at something very far away, "in the night, 150 men are locked up. In the morning, there are only 20. The night eats these people."

A man from Sarajevo who wants to be known only as "Kenan" translates for the man with the blue eyes and two other men from the town of Brcko (pronounced Brush-ko). They say they were herded with as many as 5,000 other men into warehouses along the River Sava.

The blue-eyed man and a stocky construction worker whose wired energy bursts loose in long stabbing speeches were each held 48 days in this makeshift prison camp. They tell of little water, less food, no toilets and daily confrontations with random violence and death.

Their jailers were Serb irregulars; Kenan, the translator, calls them "robbers." He describes them as hooligans who came in about six bands from different towns in Serbia, in the former Yugoslavia.

He says the robbers literally drove in with big trucks, emptied and then burned the houses of not only Bosnian Muslims and Croats but also Serbs who would not take up arms with them.

"I only survived because I was lucky," says the man with blue eyes. He says he stood in a row at the warehouse as men were "cut and massacred" arbitrarily and without reason.

Kenan has cataloged with a blue pen on white paper the horrors the men from Brcko have told him. He is a computer engineer with a very orderly mind.

In Berlin, there is no independent way to confirm the accuracy of what these men say. Tales of atrocities in Bosnia are widely reported.

However, reporters who visited the town Thursday said people there told them 2,000 people were interned in a warehouse transformed into a detention center. One witness said up to 400 of the people were killed.

Serb authorities, who let the reporters into the building, said it never had been used as a detention center but was a barracks for Serb fighters.

Kenan tells of gang rapes in the street, a kind of "Roman theater" for the robbers, he says. He speaks of genital mutilation, of beatings with iron rods and fire hose nozzles and wooden mallets, of using townspeople for human shields in battle and in building front-line bunkers.

He details methods of killing: the "classic" way of the knife, the pistol (usually with three shots to the head in accordance with the robbers' three-finger salute), the random burst from a sub-machine gun into the building at night.

The men from Brcko vehemently resist use of their names. They all fear for family members still in Bosnia. Kenan asks that his last name not be used. His mother remains in Sarajevo.

They will and do give you the names of the major-captain who ran the prison camp and other men they say mistreated them.

Only Hadzo Omerovic, who has been in Berlin 20 years, will allohis name to be used. He is a leader of this mosque of the Islamic Brotherhood of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Al Nur, and an organizer of Merhamet, an Islamic aid organization.

Merhamet has sent 20 tons of humanitarian goods, food and medicine to Bosnia. About 5,000 Bosnian Muslims live in Berlin; 200 to 300 regularly come to weekly services at the mosque. Their imam, a Bosnian, studied eight years in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Cairo.

Bosnians Muslims are the spiritual heirs of the Turkish invasion of Europe in the 15th century. Bosnia and Herzegovina were conquered and remained part of the Ottoman Empire for 500 years.

They are European Muslims, among the most secularized in Islam. These men scoff at the idea that Muslim fundamentalists want to establish an Islamic state in Bosnia.

"Serbian propaganda," Mr. Omerovic says, dismissively.

Germany has led in offering aid to Bosnian refugees; 5,000 came last week and another 5,000 are coming now. Germany has urged other European countries to share the burden of refugee relief. And they have begun to urge United Nations or European Community military intervention in Bosnia.

These men made their way to Berlin independently. They were able to get away from Brcko when the man with blue eyes found his "close neighbor" was a commander of a special army unit. He got them a permit. They all retrieved money they had buried or hidden in the walls of their homes.

They crossed Serbia to Subotica, a town with a transit camp that has become infamous, then crossed into Hungary. They came by train to Berlin across Czechoslovakia. They left Brcko about 20 days ago.

Kenan seems to be the only one of these men who actually fought against Serbs. He was among about 300 men who banded together to protect their neighborhood in suburban Sarajevo.

After a few days of night patrols, some of the more enthusiastic young men decided to attack a hotel.

"Unfortunately, a lot of press were in the hotel and they had to pull back," he says. "It was on TV. After that, the Serbian army decided to destroy my part of town."

He left Sarajevo with his wife and two young daughters about three weeks ago when things were getting "very, very hard." He drove away in a convoy of 500 cars and trucks, which was stopped three days without food.

But eventually they came to Split, the city on the Adriatic coast of Croatia, then made his way to Austria and crossed to Germany.

"Now I'm a social case here," he says. "We all are. We try to adapt. We hope it is temporary, not forever. We hope to go back."

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