Rumors, reality feed fears of all in Bosnia Muslims emerge as certain losers

May 20, 1993|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

VITEZ, Bosnia -- For Anton Kajorac, a wiry little Croatia soldier of Central Bosnia, there is no doubting the threat of the Muslim nightmare. It goes like this: The Muslims, armed and enflamed by fundamentalist brethren from the Middle East, outbreed and then outbattle all comers, turning Bosnia into a land of Islamic zealots and droning prayer towers.

"It is not logical that a Catholic or Serb go to the mosque, but that is what they expect in maybe five years," he explains earnestly, a view shared by many Bosnian Croats and Serbs. He calls this enemy the Mujahedeen, a name for the fundamentalist warriors of the Middle East, and says: "They want to have not only their part of Bosnia, but the Croatian part as well."

And so the push against Bosnia's Muslims goes on, fueled by rumor, history and heavy ammunition.

The result is that the Muslims have had no need to dream up a horrific future. Their nightmare has already arrived at the point of a gun.

Before the war, Muslims were the largest of Bosnia's three warring ethnic groups, at 44 percent of the population. Now, after thousands have been killed or uprooted, all that is certain is that the remaining Muslims have been shoved and squeezed onto roughly 15 percent of the land. Their position in a handful of towns sought out by refugees has become like that of survivors crowding onto a leaking lifeboat, with the boat taking on more passengers even as provisions run low and sharks nibble at the hull.

Yet for all their misery, the Muslims are not blameless. They, too, have burned homes and "ethnically cleansed" neighborhoods on some of the rare occasions when they've held the upper hand militarily, United Nations officials say.

In Kostanjica, a hamlet north of Mostar too small to appear on most maps, several hundred Croats have apparently been surrounded for more than a week by Muslim forces. U.N. observers have been denied entry, a tactic that has drawn loud protests and bad publicity whenever the Serbs have tried it.

Broken cease-fires

Muslim commanders have also proven as adept as Serbs and Croats at breaking cease-fires. Last weekend in Mostar, they launched an artillery counterattack against Croats after a truce had been called.

That's one reason European diplomats oppose shipping arms to the Muslims, saying that an attempt to even the odds would only ensure a fairer distribution of atrocities.

The war's present hope for peace, the plan drafted by Lord Owen and former Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance, takes away much of the land previously held by Muslim. One result is that Croatian soldiers in Central Bosnia have been using the plan's ethnic boundaries as grounds for further "ethnic cleansing" of designated Croatian zones.

So, in a war that may never have a clear winner, the Muslims have already emerged as the certain loser.

The magnitude of their defeat can be found in the dusky gymnasiums and schoolrooms of Zenica, a Muslim-controlled city where more than 80,000 refugees have joined a prewar population of 145,000.

One particular scene plays on without end in Zenica: A refugee truck rolls to a stop. Glassy-eyed children clutching small bags peer over the tailgates. Dazed old men in berets prop themselves on scarred wooden canes. Relief workers hand out blankets and sacks of food, and then usher the crowds into some building where there doesn't seem to be room for another soul. Somehow everybody fits.

Most of the refugees in Zenica have been able to escape such places by doubling up at the apartments of friends and relatives, and all over town overburdened clotheslines tell of the new arrivals. Drying laundry seems to hang everywhere in Zenica -- the colorful banner of the Muslim refugee nation.

It can be hard to figure how such people have aroused Croatian and Serbian fears of a wild-eyed Mujahedeen. Like Croats and Serbs, Bosnia's Muslims are Slavs. Most come by their religion from ancestors who converted centuries ago, some as an expedient to make life more bearable under the conquering Ottoman Turks.

Few Muslim women here wear traditional Muslim clothing. Practically none wear veils. At the hour of midday prayer at the refugee gymnasium in Zenica, only one woman was seen kneeling for prayer.

How, then, did all this Mujahedeen business get started?

Mostly through rumor, likely fed by military commanders with territorial ambitions, U.N. observers say.

But as with many rumors, this one may have the tiniest grain of truth. Croatian soldiers near the Central Bosnian town of Busovaca proudly displayed for news reporters last week a handful of "Mujahedeen" prisoners -- six men from Algeria, Afghanistan and Turkey said to have been captured while fighting.

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