Exodus from conquered Jajce compounds Bosnian refugee crisis

November 01, 1992|By New York Times News Service

TRAVNIK, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- By horse cart and on hug plow horses, on flatbeds towed by tractors and packed by the score into rickety trucks, thousands of exhausted soldiers and refugees arrived in this textile town yesterday after the worst military defeat suffered by the Sarajevo government in the Bosnian war.

An exodus that gathered pace through the night reached full force after dawn, with mile after mile of muddy, weeping people pouring into Travnik along the road from Jajce, the strategic town 30 miles northwest of here that fell to Serbian nationalist forces on Thursday.

By noon, it was clear that what was developing here was the latest disaster in a worsening refugee crisis that is shaking Europe and threatening to become a catastrophe this winter.

The figure given by the United Nations, of at least 1.3 million Bosnians left homeless by the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns that have devastated this Balkan republic, has been repeated so often that even U.N. officials here seem numbed.

Long before Jajce fell and inflated the number by at least 30,000 to 40,000 people, the officials were in a state of near desperation, to the point of warning that as many as 400,000 refugees could die in coming months of hunger and cold.

Many of Jajce's residents were killed as the Serbian troops who burst through the town's defenses at midnight on Wednesday )) and began to torch the town then followed up with sniper and artillery fire on the swelling column of refugees.

According to survivors' accounts, the guns opened up as the thickest part of the 30-mile-long column made its way slowly down a logging road barely wide enough for a single horse cart, sending thousands of terrified people scrambling into the forests.

The number of people killed was not clear, but the column was halted for 24 hours while Gen. Philippe Morillon, the U.N. commander for Bosnia, appealed to the Serbian forces to hold their fire.

In Jajce, as most often elsewhere in the seven months of the Bosnian war, the practitioners of the policy were Serbian troops, and the victims either Croats or Muslims. And as has frequently been the case when the Serbian forces have attacked Bosnian towns that have been chosen to become part of an exclusively Serbian ministate, Jajce, before the five-month siege that ended in its fall, was inhabited overwhelmingly by non-Serbs.

In the 1991 census taken when Bosnia was still part of Yugoslavia, 38.8 percent of the 49,500 people living in Jajce County, including the town, were Muslims; 35.1 percent Croats; and 19.3 percent Serbs.

Serbian radio and television accounts showed Serbian troops wearing green helmets and Yugoslav army uniforms patrolling Jajce's shattered main street, with columns of white and black smoke rising into the sky beyond them.

The accounts described Jajce as a "liberated town" and as part of "the free Serbian republic" created by the war.

The reports invited Muslims and Croats to return and live under Serbian rule. But among the Muslims who made it to Travnik, the Serbian offer was greeted as a cruel mockery.

"The Serbian soldiers were like ants -- there were thousands of them, everywhere," said Jasminka Hrnic, 30, sitting on a patch of sodden ground near the town center with her three daughters.

"If we had stayed, we would have all been slaughtered," she said.

Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic proposed that the republic be divided into five ethnic cantons. Under his plan, Muslims -- the largest ethnic group -- would get little more than three cities, and Serbs and Croats would divide the rest.

Serbs have captured about 70 percent of Bosnian territory, and Croats control most of the rest.

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