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Bosnian Serbs Scour Land They Conquered

Ahead of partition, paramilitaries find new means to evict non-Serb residents

By Jonathan S. LandaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1993


A NEW surge in ``ethnic cleansing'' is sweeping areas of the self-declared Bosnian Serb state where large numbers of Muslims and Croats are still living, United Nations officials, human rights groups, and residents say.

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``It's all a prelude to the establishment of ethnic states,'' says a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) official.

Bosnian Serb leaders allegedly provide incentives to the men carrying out these practices by allowing them to accumulate small fortunes in stolen cash and property. ``It's a big business,'' says one international aid official.

Ultranationalist paramilitary groups, deputed as ``state commissions,'' are charged with overseeing ``population exchanges.'' Using this guise, witnesses say, paramilitaries round up non-Serbs at gunpoint, confiscate their cash and jewelry, and bus them to front lines near the Muslim-held city of Tuzla. The displaced are then herded across mine fields into the city, and their homes are given or sold to Bosnian Serb refugees.

``Suddenly, a month ago, people started disappearing into the night,'' says one of the few Muslim intellectuals left in Bijeljina, a prime target of the latest purges.

``Ethnic cleansing'' has been pursued by all sides in the 18-month-old conflict, but to the greatest extent by the Serbs.

No one knows exactly how many non-Serbs remain in the 70 percent of Bosnia controlled by Serbs and how many have been uprooted in the latest expulsions, except perhaps the Bosnian Serb leadership. It conducted a census last spring despite international law banning head counts in war zones.

The new drive appears to target non-Serbs still living around Bijeljina - about 5,000 out of the prewar population of 30,000; Doboj - about 1,200 of more than 50,000; and Banja Luka - where about half the 60,000 non-Serbs are estimated to remain. Most of the non-Serbs are Muslims.

Bosnian Serb leaders, human rights and UN officials say, want to ensure that the non-Serb population remaining in the 52 percent of Bosnia earmarked for the ``Serbian Republic'' is so tiny as to be politically insignificant.

``This decision provides that in the Bijeljina region, only 5 percent of its 22,000 Muslim inhabitants can remain,'' states a report by the Humanitarian Law Fund, a Belgrade human rights group.

``Muslims in the Banja Luka region are subjected to constant intimidation with the goal of finishing the ethnic cleansing of the region,'' according to an internal UNHCR report obtained by the Monitor. ``Authorities deny involvement in this campaign of terror and blame uncontrolled extremists, but those who are not actively involved clearly tacitly condone cleansing activities.''

The campaign apparently began in anticipation of the acceptance last month by all sides of the internationally sanctioned plan to end war by cutting Bosnia-Herzegovina into three ``ministates.''

The Muslim-led Bosnian Parliament declined to accept the plan as it stood, but the cleansing persists because of expectations that ethnic partition is inevitable.

Aside from the political aspects, local Serb authorities need housing for Serb refugees who are being turned away by an economically shattered Serbia.