Bosnian refugee recalls his ordeal Muslim man's future in U.S.: resettlement in Detroit

July 25, 1993|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Kareem Jakubovic fights his memories, trying to push the atrocities of Bosnia's war from the forefront of his mind. Perhaps his anxiety about starting a new life in the United States, he says, will distract him from worse thoughts.

Mr. Jakubovic is among the first batch of 500 refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina to land in the United States. A survivor of two concentration camps in Bosnia, he arrived in New York last week on his way to resettlement in Detroit. He was wide-eyed at the busy Manhattan streets, and he scoffed at the flavor of his first beer, a Heineken, which he found watery.

Thousands are likely to follow his path here. Like other Bosnian Muslims who fled to Croatia with the hope of returning home when the fighting died down, Mr. Jakubovic says such a notion evaporated in recent months as the situation in Bosnia slipped from ravaged to worse.

"My village is completely destroyed now," said Mr. Jakubovic, 28. He grew up on a small farm in northeastern Bosnia and ran a grocery store there until last year. "They even smashed our chicken coop," he said. "There is nothing."

He shed his reluctance to speak about his most horrific memories at the urging of the International Rescue Committee, a private relief organization whose officers are eager to demonstrate the abundance of Bosnians needing refuge among the more than 300,000 who fled their homes and who are waiting in Croatia for resettlement.

With many European countries closing their borders to immigrants, the committee's officers say, more and more Bosnians are now asking to come to the United States.

It is unclear how many will be allowed in. Of the 122,000 allotted spaces for refugees this year -- including about 50,000 for the republics of the former Soviet Union and 50,000 for Vietnam -- only 2,000 will go to Bosnians. That allotment was reduced from 3,000 last month when the State Department announced that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was unable to find enough Bosnians waiting in Croatia who wanted to come.

Barbara Nagorski, vice president of the International Rescue Committee, says there is no shortage of willing and needy refugees. The problem, she says, is that the U.N. agency is overburdened with providing emergency aid in Bosnia and unable to screen all those who would qualify for refugee status. A spokeswoman for the agency in Washington said it was running out of funds.

A State Department official said discussions were under way with Congress on whether the allotment for refugees from Bosnia should be increased in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. Ms. Nagorski says it should be at least 10,000.

Mr. Jakubovic realizes that he is lucky just to be alive. Several friends were killed by shelling in his home village of Jacobovici -- a town of 700 whose residents almost all have the same last name -- when the Bosnian Serb militia arrived on May 24, 1992.

The Serbs aimed at the local mosque first, less than 100 yards from Mr. Jakubovic's house, and he fled into the woods. He was captured two days later and taken to a camp at Keraterm, where he and about 1,300 other men were crammed into a former tile factory.

His voice dropped as he recalled the horrors he saw there, and the ones later at another camp in Trnopolje. A man standing beside him was shot to death for leaning over too quickly to tie a VTC shoelace, he said. Prisoners were tortured with cigarette burns and beaten regularly with clubs. They were fed once a day, usually just a small bowl of beans. Mr. Jakubovic said he lost 40 pounds in two months.

Yet it was the seemingly arbitrary nature of killing in the camps that most terrified him and that most likely left the deepest scars on his mind. He said the prisoners rarely knew why they might be taken out of the camp, sometimes to be shot, sometimes to be transferred elsewhere.

Making sense of the ethnic rivalries seems difficult for Mr. Jakubovic.

"The Serbs are all guilty," he asserted at one point, only to add a few moments later: "I don't really blame all Serbs." And then: "They are all the same," followed by: "It's a mess. I don't know what to think."

Somehow, his family remained intact. His mother, father, brother and sister-in-law are all in Croatia, waiting to join him in the United States. The International Rescue Committee has arranged for the family to settle in Detroit, where a handful of other Bosnian families already live, and where Mr. Jakubovic will soon start looking for a job.

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