Muslims in south Serbia and Montenegro targets of campaign of terror, torture

April 10, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

NOVI PAZAR, Serbia -- While the world is preoccupied with neighboring Bosnia, a brutal round of terror against Muslims is taking place in the south of Serbia. The catalog of torture and "disappearances" constitutes a chilling indictment of the Belgrade regime.

The area of breathtaking snow-capped mountains and forests is known as the Sandjak. It extends into both Serbia and its sister Serbian republic of Montenegro. Around half a million people live here. A majority are Muslims. Authorities seem determined to make life unbearable for them and drive them out.

In the latest move, 50 Muslims are being held in jail, half in Serbia, half in Montenegro. They are leaders of the main Muslim party, the SDA. Those in Serbia have been charged with plotting the secession of the region, though their trial has been suspended. In Montenegro, no charges have yet been brought.

After days or weeks of being held incommunicado, they were allowed short interviews with lawyers and their families. They told of physical and psychological torture, including being beaten by different people, being deprived of sleep, food and water, being driven in cars with hoods on their heads to unknown destinations and being threatened with death at the hands of notorious Serbian warlords.

In a typical example, Hakija Muratovic was beaten and was told his wife, Hakima, was in the next room being sexually assaulted. She wasn't. She was frantically phoning police stations attempting to locate him. "At first, they didn't want to say anything, but [after three days] one said, 'He's dead, did you hear that?' " she said. Several defendants have been tortured into "confessions," which will now provide evidence at their trial.

They include Harun Hadzic. His lawyers say that he was beaten for 48 hours without a break, given electric shocks and exposed to high temperatures from an asbestos cap pulled over his head.

The timing of the crackdown on the leaders of the SDA appears to have been carefully chosen.

"They want to cut off the head [of the SDA] in case the question of the Sandjak is raised" in talks on an overall settlement in the former Yugoslavia, said one human rights activist.

In the Sandjak's main town, Novi Pazar -- a dusty place filled with minarets and where life is focused on a bustling, sanctions-busting black market -- the talk in the coffee shops is of what will happen when the Bosnia war is over. Muslims discuss leaving the Sandjak and settling in Muslim areas of Bosnia, the only place, they say, they will be able to consider any kind of homeland.

Thousands of Muslims have already left -- though probably not the tens of thousands claimed by local SDA leaders. Many of those who left were young Muslim men fearful of being drafted into the army.

Two events paralyzed the Muslims of the region with fear. In one, 18 months ago, paramilitaries stopped and boarded a bus. They passed through it, checking ID cards. They removed some 20 Muslims, including schoolchildren, who were never seen again. Only one Muslim boy survived: Serbian men sitting with him realized what was happening. They claimed they were his father and uncle and told him to say his name was Sasha, a typically Serbian name.

Six months later, a train was traveling from Belgrade to the Montenegrin port of Bar. It made an unscheduled stop in a tiny strip of Bosnia through which it passed. Seventeen Muslim men were removed and have never been seen again.

"Nobody here wants to get on a bus or a train," said a woman in Novi Pazar.

The police have made raids on Muslim houses in the Sandjak in recent months. A Belgrade-based human rights organization, the Humanitarian Law Fund, has cataloged hundreds of cases of arrests and beatings. The police say they are searching for weapons. When Muslims deny that they have any, they are told to "give birth" to them. Many Muslims have bought weapons and handed them over in order to appease the police.

One 60-year-old man -- he did not want his name printed -- described how police came to his village. He invited them in for coffee. They refused and told him they had come to get his gun and 14 bullets. He told them that he didn't have a gun, that his wife was ill and he spent all his money on medicine for her. He was taken to a police station and beaten almost unconscious. He has photographs of the weals. "I would hang myself if I knew I had to go through that again," he said.

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