Refugees tell of Serbian acts of terror in Banja Luka

March 27, 1994|By New York Times News Service

GASINCI, Croatia -- While the world's attention has been focused on the cease-fire in Sarajevo and diplomatic moves to broker peace elsewhere in the shattered former Yugoslavia, a savage Serbian campaign to drive Muslims and Croats from land seized in the last two years is continuing, even growing, in the Banja Luka region of northern Bosnia.

"It's business as usual in Banja Luka; it's even getting worse and worse," said Joren Bjallerstedt, the chief protection officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. " 'Ethnic cleansing,' violence toward minorities has increased in the last month, clearly."

A dozen Muslims evacuated Tuesday night from Banja Luka on a Red Cross bus sat slumped on bunks in a one-room wooden cabin in a refugee camp in Gasinci the other day. There were apologies to a visitor, for there was no coffee to offer.

"We don't even have a coffee cup," said 65-year-old Kadira Beganovic.

Emina Gasi, 15, faltered as she started to recount the night in late February when men in Serbian military uniforms, stockings over their faces, broke into her home in Banja Luka, slashed her grandfather's head and arms with knives and raped her.

"Yes, when they raped me and my sister, it was like that," Rasema Beganovic, 34, broke in sympathetically. "Two men, in uniforms, they had stockings over their heads. The Serbs came to our house; they raped me in front of all my family, including my 9-year-old daughter."

Such tactics have repeatedly been reported, investigated and documented by international relief agencies over the last three years as Serbian nationalists have fought to create an "ethnically pure" area in the land they have taken by force since the breakup of the old Yugoslavia.

Roughly a third of Croatia was seized in 1991, and 70 percent of Bosnia-Herzegovina has been seized since mid-1992 by the Serbs, and they are likely to hold on to most of that in any peace settlement.

Refugees and relief workers describe a reign of terror in the Banja Luka region, where organized gangs of Serbs, aided by the police and by the military authorities, are going street by street, systematically driving out Muslim and Croatian families through intimidation that includes murder, rape, beatings, robbery and the destruction of 200 mosques.

"It's very tough to be a Muslim or Croat in that area," Mr. Bjallerstedt said. "The pattern is there, and it will continue until the area is cleansed. From the beginning, this was a political decision."

At night, groups of gunmen open fire on targeted houses and toss hand grenades in the backyards to frighten families into leaving, he said.

"People are arrested on the streets, totally beaten up, for nothing," he went on. "We have many examples of people found dead, often with their throats cut. And the next day a Serb family will move in with blood still on the floor."

Asked about the campaign of violence, a U.S. State Department spokesman in Washington, Michael McCurry, said, "We have said for some time that we have credible information that ethnic cleansing is taking place in Banja Luka."

Department officials said relief workers had begun interviewing leaders and residents of the Banja Luka area and would turn the information over to an international tribunal that is to look into Balkan war crimes.

"This violence will not end until the war ends," Mr. McCurry said. "That is why we are working so hard to bring about an overall settlement."

Before the war, 1.33 million people lived in the Banja Luka region, including 624,000 Serbs, 356,000 Muslims, 180,000 Croats and roughly 170,000 from other backgrounds, according to 1991 census figures.

Some 560,000 people have fled, Mr. Bjallerstedt said, leaving a minority population estimated at 70,000 to 80,000. The Serbian population has expanded to some 875,000, swollen by people who have moved from Muslim-controlled areas of central Bosnia like Zenica.

But the numbers do not tell the full story of broken lives.

In the old Yugoslavia of six republics, people had tended to put everything they earned into their homes and consumer goods since the 1970s. Land ownership was restricted, banks were considered untrustworthy and there were few other real investment opportunities.

Yet, for a former Communist country, in a region devastated by bitter internecine fighting in World War II, life had become good, largely because of the earnings of vast numbers of Yugoslavs who went abroad as "guest workers."

The money the guest workers sent home to their families went into building and adding onto houses -- huge, even by American standards -- and buying a cornucopia of goods -- color television sets, videocassette recorders and washing machines, all treasured in what had mainly been a hardscrabble peasant society.

Losing a house means losing everything.

"Everything I earned over 40 years, all my life, is here in four bags," said Hafifa Demoravic, who came here on the bus from Banja Luka on Tuesday night with the other ousted Muslims. Her husband, Sabahudin, his head downcast, said that before the Serbs drove them out, he had not stepped outside their house for two years for fear of losing it.

"If they leave their home only for a day or two, it's gone," said Mr. Bjallerstedt, the U.N. official. "It's been occupied by a Serb family, or burned down. Any abandoned house is immediately looted or destroyed."

Serbs arriving from other areas in search of a house can have Muslim families thrown out with the help of the police or "uncontrolled elements," he said.

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