THE end came abruptly in the dead of night, announced not by bullets or bombs but by the loudspeaker of a solitary police car cruising the streets of sleeping Vares.
``At about 2 a.m., they called on all of the Croats to leave because the Muslim forces were approaching,'' says Zdenko, a metal worker. ``There was a kind of stampede through the streets. People were rushing toward the UN base. I thought they would stop there. But they did not. Instead, they kept going and headed for Serbian territory,'' he recalls.
Almost all 9,000 Croats fled the grimy steel and mining town in the cold pre-dawn dark Wednesday after the Croatian Defense Force -
the Bosnian Croat militia known as the HVO - abandoned its positions before the advancing Bosnian Army.
The fortunate rode in trucks, cars, and buses. But the majority walked, dragging suitcases and bags in another of the now too-familiar scenes of the 19-month war that has driven roughly 2.2 million people from their homes.
The Vares area, an island of peace for most of the war, was the last major Bosnian Croat enclave north of Sarajevo, and its capitulation represents a development of potentially major significance. The enclave straddles the main road connecting the Bosnian Army strongholds of Zenica and Tuzla. The road leads directly south toward Sarajevo and other contested areas of central Bosnia.
From Vares, Bosnian Army units could link up with others in the towns of Kakanj and Visoko to strike at Bosnian Serb forces on the western and northern fringes of Sarajevo, about 30 miles away across forested mountains.
Far more likely, the Army will redouble its efforts to overrun remaining Bosnian Croat-held pockets in central Bosnia, such as Vitez, Kiseljak, and Prozor, and attempt to drive a corridor southward toward the embattled Muslim-controlled enclaves of Konjic and Jablanica and on to the embattled city of Mostar. String of Croat losses
Whatever the case, the capitulation of Vares continues a string of disasterous Bosnian Croat losses in central Bosnia, home to most of the republic's 670,000 Croats, since the collapse last spring of the anti-Serb Bosnian Croat-Muslim Slav alliance. Most of the losses have followed a similar pattern, with the HVO abandoning positions and retreating without a major fight.
Many Bosnian Croats claim bitterly that they are being sacrificed to the consolidation and eventual annexation by neighboring Croatia of the self-declared Bosnian Croat state of ``Herceg-Bosna'' in Western Herzegovina.
Herzegovinans control the HVO, are prime financiers of Croatia's ruling party, and hold key posts under Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who is widely believed to have secretly agreed with his Serbian counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic, to divide Bosnia between them.
Thousands of Bosnian Croat refugees have been sent by way of Bosnian Serb-held territories to Western Herzegovina, a historic hotbed of fanatical Croatian nationalism from which most Muslim were driven this summer.
Such is expected to be the fate of the refugees in Sokolac. But it is not a welcome prospect. ``We are people who simply have no idea what to do,'' says the Rev. Mato Topic, one of Vares' five Roman Catholic priests.
The Bosnian Army drive against Vares had long been expected because of its position on the Tuzla-Zenica road, which the HVO has frequently blocked to humanitarian aid bound for the two towns. On Oct. 19, Bosnian forces overran the village of Kopijari, killing civilians and torching homes, Fr. Topic alleges, adding that they prevented an investigation by United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) troops in Vares. Muslim Slavs massacred
It was this incident, Topic says, that incited the HVO's retaliatory massacre on Oct. 23 of at least 17 Muslim Slav villagers in Stupni Do. ``After that, the world, it seems, supported the Muslims in continuing their attacks on Vares,'' Topic says.
As the Muslim forces continued to roll toward Vares, Bosnian Croat peasants flocked the town for protection, and extremist HVO soldiers began attacking members of its 3,000-strong Muslim community. Many Muslim women and children sought the protection of UNPROFOR troops.
HVO soldiers rounded up 227 Muslims, 27 of whom were found Wednesday by UNPROFOR to have been badly tortured. UN officials also said that before retreating from Vares, HVO members torched Muslim homes. Refuge in the hills
Then the Bosnians reached Vares, sending thousands of Croats into the rugged mountains. Many fled toward the hamlet of Brgule, a front-line crossing into territory held by the Bosnian Serbs, who agreed to provide safe passage for the refugees once transportation for the bulk of them was arranged.
``Families were split up. Women and children were crying. There was complete uncertainty,'' Zdenko says. He, his wife, and son were among 350 people who, because they had their own vehicles, were allowed by the Bosnian Serbs to proceed to a refugee camp of UN-supplied tents pitched amid rain-sodden fields in Sokolac, 30 miles to the west.
But the rest remained behind as HVO press gangs combed the crowds for men of fighting age (between 16 and 60 years old), refugees says. Zdenko's brother was forced to remain behind.
Zdenko says he and his family were among about 80 people who first sought shelter at the UNPROFOR base. ``They would not let us in. The officer said he was not able to protect the whole town,'' Zdenko says. ``He said he would consult his superiors about what they might do to protect children. I realized they would not help, so we headed for Serbian territory,'' he says.