Having lost kin and their homes, Bosnian refugees live deep in grief THE WAR IN BOSNIA


July 23, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Mukelefa Husic's forced march down the time line of Bosnian misery has come to rest in a hot stubbly field of 6,000 refugees sheltering in low, white tents.

Like the others, she has just come through three years of shelling, expulsion and deprivation, uprooted first from one town and then from another in a conflict that has left 200,000 dead and wounded, and tens of thousands displaced.

In the past 12 days she watched Serbian soldiers stab to death her oldest son, take away her second son, and haul her husband off a refugee bus to points unknown.

Now, as she sits in the dirt with the only remaining member of her family, a 4-year-old son, she shuts her eyes tightly and breaks into a low moan that rises and falls in the rhythm of a holy lament.

"My husband, my sons," she chants over and over, swaying and rocking, while around her dozens of women stir with their own shakes and sobs.

They are a congregation of mourners. They have nowhere to go but their hot tents, nothing to think about but their missing sons and husbands, and nothing to listen to but the rumble of aid trucks, the wailing of infants and the drone of summer bugs.

Ms. Husic halts her eerie cadence. Then, in a calmer voice, she assesses the future of her 41-year-old life. "I will kill myself and my child," she says. "I cannot take this pressure any longer."

Ms. Husic's lament is a fitting anthem for Bosnia's 1.9 million Muslims.

With 42 percent of the nation's pre-war population -- the country's largest ethnic group -- the Muslims now hold less than a fifth of its land, a total reduced further during the past 12 days by the Serb capture of the eastern Bosnian towns of Srebrenica and Zepa, with encircled Gorazde standing next in line.

United Nations promises to protect those towns have proved to be empty. For the latest wave of refugees, it is now clear that neither the United Nations nor the politicians who scorn it will do anything soon to help them return to their homes. And, as they have found during the past several days, even their own leaders will sometimes manipulate their woes for political gain.

The tale of what has gone wrong for the Muslim people of Bosnia is easily traced in the life stories of the refugees gathered on this field of tents at the Tuzla air base. The camp itself is a sort of Bosnia in miniature -- a warren of the bereaved and homeless surrounded by razor wire and mines, fed and doctored by a gawking international community, and ever threatened by Serbian artillery.

One of the youngest people at the camp is Irina Suljic, born 24 days ago during the final weeks of the siege of Srebrenica. On a recent afternoon she squirms in the arms of her mother Suhra, who pours water from a tin can onto the baby's sunburned body in a pathetic attempt at a bath.

Ms. Suljic returns to the shade of the tent, sitting on the floor and putting the infant to her breast while placing a second child, a 1-year-old son, lengthwise on her outstretched legs, rocking him gently to sleep. He has a fever and a blotchy rash. So does her third child, a 3-year-old boy tugging at her sleeve.

Like practically everyone else in Srebrenica, Ms. Suljic listened eagerly to news reports during the past few years whenever world leaders vowed to do something about their predicament.

'The whole world is guilty'

They took heart as the European powers issued ultimatums to the Serbs. They despaired when no one backed the threats with action. They have wondered at the comments of people such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who proclaimed that there were 20 ways to solve the Bosnian mess without using a single American soldier.

Even as they were being herded out of Srebrenica at gunpoint 12 days ago, some could hear radio reports of French President Jacques Chirac vowing to help to "restore the integrity of the Srebrenica zone."

"The whole world is guilty of what has happened," Ms. Suljic says.

They make the case for this verdict by recounting their experiences in the early days of the war. Three years ago, the Serbian attacks came fast and furious, and Muslims living in the outlying villages of eastern Bosnia streamed toward Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, towns where Muslim populations had long been in the majority, and where the United Nations set up aid operations.

What the Muslim soldiers needed most in those days were weapons to counter the tanks and heavy artillery the Serbs had taken from Yugoslav army depots. Instead the United Nations offered a proposition: give up their few guns and they could stay in the three eastern enclaves forever. The United Nations would send troops to guarantee their protection.

"I believed them," Ms. Suljic says. "When UNPROFOR [the U.N. Protection Force] came to Srebrenica, I was thinking that the war was over."

Merima Garovic, who along with her 1-year-old son shares the tent with Ms. Suljic, says, "My husband didn't have his gun because they took it. They took our arms and said they would protect the people."

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