Bosnian town relives horrors Serbian rebels sack Sanski Most amid frenzied retreat

October 22, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SANSKI MOST, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- As Bosnian Serb troops hastily retreated 11 days ago from this one-time stronghold, witnesses say, they re-enacted in miniature the horrors of 1992, with a frenzy of ethnic roundups, executions, beatings and overcrowded detentions of Muslim and Croatian men.

In the end, according to local estimates, about 300 civilians were killed, while another 700 were hauled away to destinations unknown.

Survivors also describe a Serbian regime of forced labor during the past 3 1/2 years of military occupation, a loosely organized system in which every able-bodied Muslim and Croatian man was required to report daily, without salary, for chores in support of the Serbian war effort.

Such accusations of long-term forced labor have been repeated with striking similarity by men in other northwest Bosnian towns recently recaptured from the Serbs. If true, they would add yet another chapter to this war's lengthy chronicle of atrocities and crimes.

But even a few years of wood-chopping, truck-loading and crop-picking on behalf of the Serbian army seemed happily normal to Mato Matijevic, a 60-year-old Croat, compared with the dangerous chaos of the final weeks of occupation.

"When they realized that Sanski Most was about to fall, everything changed," Mr. Matijevic said. "They went crazy."

"In 15 days, they committed more atrocities against us than in all of the previous three years," said a Muslim man, 62, from a nearby street. "You know how it is when you corner a wild animal. It is more dangerous when they are wounded."

That man, like several others interviewed during the past week, refused to give his name, explaining his reluctance by pointing to the hills a few miles away, where the Serbs have dug their new positions, still lobbing an occasional shell toward the town.

'I am afraid'

"I am afraid," he said. "It would be bad for me if they ever returned."

Sanski Most, with a pre-war population of about 60,000 in the town and outlying villages, already was well-known to human rights investigators and aid workers. From the war's earliest months in the spring of 1992 its Muslim population (nearly half the town) and its Croats (about 7 percent) endured some of the worst treatment at the hands of the country's well-armed Serbian rebels.

It was in this region of northwest Bosnia that the Serbs first made their policy of "ethnic cleansing" evident, first by killing or rounding up for detention the Muslims and Croats known as political leaders and intellectuals, then by doing the same to other men simply because they were of the right age for military service. Along the way, thousands of Muslim and Croatian women were raped.

The history of this period is already well-documented in the thick reports by independent investigators.

Nearly forgotten since then have been the few thousand Muslims and Croats who stayed behind in the captured towns such as

Sanski Most.

Too old to be a threat

They didn't leave mostly because they were too scared, and the Serbs didn't evict them because they were too old to be a threat.

"They put their tanks on the road; we couldn't move," explained one elderly Muslim man. "And we couldn't resist because we had no weapons."

Not long after the occupying forces settled in, the forced work details began.

"It worked the way it would in peacetime at a factory," the man said, refusing even to give his first name out of fear of retaliation should the Serbs recapture the town. "You would report somewhere every day so they would know where you were. I was part of a group that went to the public works building. Others reported to the electric plant, the water plant, or the telephone building."

Lucija Licanin, 53, watched her husband stroll off every day to work for the local agricultural company, digging up potatoes, picking tomatoes or peppers, or doing other chores. "He worked for three years," she said bitterly. "He didn't even get one cigarette for it."

'We were not paid at all'

Mr. Matijevic said he was put in charge of one work group of Muslims and Croats, which, depending on its daily assignment, would number anywhere between 20 and 50.

"They would tell me what the group would do that day," he said. "Sometimes we loaded trucks; sometimes we were logging and chopping trees for their firewood. We were not paid at all, not even a match."

In the town of Kljuc, about 20 miles south of Sanski Most, and recaptured from the Serbs during the past several weeks, a 60-year-old Muslim who identified himself only as Hamid said, "We were like dogs to them. We were worthless. They made us work. Seven days before the town was liberated, I was in Kupres [a town to the south of Kljuc that was then on the front lines], still digging trenches for them. They were harassing us in the worst sort of ways."

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