Bosnian refugees find cold comfort in Croatia Air of hopelessness permeates camp

August 17, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

KARLOVAC, Croatia -- The newest baby in the refugee camp here is a tiny girl born on a foam pad tucked under an overhang of a wall outside the university gymnasium.

Her mother is 19 years old, a thin, beautiful Gypsy named Jasmina, a homeless madonna of the refugees.

Her father has just stolen a dozen tomatoes so that they can have something to eat.

"He stole from a car," says Maida Garcevic, a Muslim girl driven from her home in Banja Luka, across the border in Serb-occupied Bosnia.

"Everybody of us have to do it," Maida says. "Everybody!"

Maida is 15, and she feels the edge of desperation cutting through this camp, where 1,213 refugees sprawl on mats spread everywhere, inside and outside the gym, like flotsam washed up on some barren beach. Most have been here a month or more. The feeling of hopelessness is epidemic among them.

"One baby was born yesterday," Maida says. "One baby died."

The baby born on the pad on the ground is named Nusreta. She has brilliant black eyes. And she is the youngest person in the camp.

Maida leads the way to the oldest, a 104-year-old woman named Zumra Novi, who had lived her entire life in the town of Bosanski Novi. She was expelled about a month ago because she is a Muslim. The town in northern Bosnia was being made "ethnically clean" by the Serbian forces that had occupied it.

She lies crumpled like a piece of wastepaper on a mat wedged between a stairwell and a wall, less a living person than a fading memory.

United Nations authorities estimate that 1,200 refugees, mostly men, await help in Bosanski Novi and that there are 20,000 to 28,000 altogether in northern Bosnia. The Serbs have told the United Nations that something bad will happen to the refugees unless they leave.

The fighting between ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia has created something like 1.9 million refugees. Croatia says that it has 650,000 and that it can't afford to take any more.

In Karlovac, the refugees must leave the gym soon because the winter sports season is beginning. They have no place to go, and they fear the coming of winter.

"We just want to leave here," Maida says. "We don't have permission to stay here in Croatia. We don't have any water. We don't have bread. We don't have food. We don't have money. We're waiting for a train to Germany."

Germany has taken three trainloads of refugees from Croatia. The Germans have promised to take 10,000 refugees from towns and villages ravaged by war and raging nationalism in the former Yugoslavia.

"We don't care if it's Germany," Maida says. "Any country. We just want to leave here."

That refrain echoes through the camp like the chorus of a ballad of people displaced by war and "ethnic cleansing."

Seval Labud, a big, wide, 32-year-old machinist from Sarajevo, is the leader of the Bosnian Muslim community at the camp.

"He is the best man," Maida says.

About 400 Gypsies live here, too. The Bosnians don't consider them part of their community.

Ethnic identification is very complicated in the former Yugoslavia, even in the refugee camps. Gypsies suffered horribly from the Nazi form of "ethnic cleansing" during World War II.

Hasan Suljic is a 31-year-old Gypsy from Tuzla. His grandparents and many other members of his family died in Nazi death camps.

His wife and five children are here. He says there are 20 Gypsy families, each with at least five children. Mr. Suljic is also a Muslim -- and a very angry man.

"Everybody comes to talk to us and take pictures, and nobody helps us," he says. "We are here hungry and thirsty, and nobody helps us."

Mr. Labud says 500 children -- 350 under age 10 -- are in the camp. He firmly believes that people bribed local authorities to get on the last and, so far, only train to take people from this camp to Germany. Everyone in the camp believes that, Maida says.

Maida learned English in school and by watching "Love at First Sight" on international television. She got all A's in elementary school, "not one B," but when she went to secondary school to register they told her, "This school is for Serbians."

"I thought I would be a doctor," she says. "What could I think now? I don't know tomorrow, not five or six years from now."

Since July 17, she has lived with her mother, Zemira, and a poodle named Lucky on their own foam pad, pulled against a wall across the lawn from Jasmina and her baby.

They were fairly prosperous in Banja Luka. Her father, Nadir, is a guitar player. They owned their house.

"We left everything, even our picture albums," Maida says. "They took it from us. They just came and told us to go."

Her father was still in a prison camp when they left. He has since escaped and made his way to Germany. He has telephoned.

"We don't know if we go to Germany," she says. "We just hope; we don't know."

Inside the gym on the basketball floor, the families on their pads look like survivors of some strange shipwreck adrift on rafts on a hardwood sea. Maida and her mother prefer to be outside.

"It's hot inside," she says. "It's dirty, it stinks, and there are lice now. If it rains, we run inside and sit up all night. If you lay your head down, you get lice right away."

This is not like a migrant camp from "The Grapes of Wrath." This is the homelessness of people who live on grates or in a city park.

"We wash in a river -- and a dirty river, not clean," Maida says.

And the townspeople in Karlovac don't particularly like them.

"They call us stupid Muslims," Maida says. "They get drunk and come through and say go back to Turkey. In town, when they see we are refugees, they turn their heads.

"And I agree with them. Karlovac is full of refugees you can see and only a few citizens. I am going crazy, too, as a refugee."

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