Bosnian Serbs Scour Land They Conquered

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

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.

``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.

``I personally estimate that when the war is finished, maybe 10 to 15 percent of the non-Serb population will stay and live in the Serbian Republic,'' admits Vladimir Lukic, the self-styled Bosnian Serb prime minister. Witnesses say between 40 and 50 Muslims are expelled every few days by Bijeljina's ``State Commission for the Exchange of Civilian Populations'' headed by Vojkan Djurkovic, a ``major'' in the Serbian Tigers, the most notorious of the all-Serb paramilitary bands.

``The lucky are given two or three hours to gather their things,'' says the Muslim intellectual. ``Those who are unlucky must pack while these guys wait.''

Mr. Djurkovic operates from a storefront hung with pictures of the Tigers' leader, Zeljko ``Arkan'' Raznatovic, a member of the Serbian Assembly and a reputed underworld don who is listed by the United States as a suspected war criminal. Non-Serbs, most of whom lost their jobs last year, are helpless against the attacks.

``We cannot work, we cannot think. We wake up with nightmares. We put bars on our doors,'' one Muslim resident says. ``Finally, we ask ourselves if we can survive under this pressure and how long it will last.''

In another of the new expulsion rackets, hundreds of Muslims from Doboj have been duped into paying thousands of dollars to ``tourist agencies'' promising visas and transport to Hungary. Once en route, they are robbed at gunpoint and forced across the front lines into Tuzla or abandoned in Subotica, a town in northern Serbia near Hungary.

``There are now some 200 Bijeljina Muslims stuck in Subotica,'' a UN official says.

For minorities determined to resist, Bosnian Serb authorities have invented various ``legal'' devices designed to pressure them to apply for immigration abroad or sign up for legitimate house exchanges brokered by local branches of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

In one method known as the ``cuckoo's nest,'' municipal officials set the maximum amount of living room - known as ``the rationalization of living space'' - required by one person. Non-Serbs found to exceed those limits are forced to accept Serb refugees in their homes. The inevitable strain in relations eventually compels many original tenants to leave.

A method used in Banja Luka involves ethnic job quotas: 90 percent Serb for state-owned factories. Those fired automatically forfeit the right to their factory-owned apartments.

Bosnian Serb leaders deny deliberate expulsions, asserting that Muslims and Croats volunteer for ``population exchanges.'' That is ridiculed by UN officials.

Bosnian Serb leaders assert that they are doing their utmost to protect non-Serbs. ``But it's hard to protect the rights of the non-Serb population when you know that just across the front lines, the rights of the Serbs are violated and their families tortured and killed,'' says Mr. Lukic, the Serb ``prime minister.''

Some Bosnian Serbs have become shocked at the abuses, but they are powerless to stop them.

``I know the Muslim families in my neighborhood. They are good people,'' says one Serb who has seen the cleansing. ``It's not good to mistreat these people. But I can't say it out loud because it is too dangerous for me.''

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