THE plight of Muslims desperate to flee unrelenting persecution in Serb-held northern Bosnia-Herzegovina has become a big business worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
In the absence of international pressure on Bosnian Serb leaders to halt shootings, beatings, rapes, and forced labor, or allow mass evacuations, entire Muslim villages have begun paying Bosnian Serb businessmen to arrange their escapes.
Over the past 10 days, almost 900 men, women, and children from the Banja Luka area have been driven to Croatia in bus convoys organized by these businessmen, say United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) officials.
``Twenty-one families from my village left,'' says Ibrahima, one of some 200 Muslims who arrived at the Gasinci Refugee Camp in eastern Croatia on June 1. ``My village was entirely emptied.''
The refugees paid between $150 and $165 for a bus seat.
UNHCR officials say at least 500 of the Muslims also shelled out $150 each to one businessman, Dusan Petkovic of Kotor Varos, near Banja Luka, for what they were told were official Croatian transit visas.
An undetermined number of the refugees also obtained from Mr. Petkovic for $500 each financial support letters purportedly from friends or relatives in Germany, UNHCR officials say. Refugees require such letters to obtain German visas.
One UNHCR official says a Croatian police probe has determined that 250 transit visas were genuine - the rest were fakes - raising questions about possible official Croatian complicity.
Says the official on condition of anonymity: ``There is a big business going on. There is a lot of money involved.''
All sides in the Bosnian war have persecuted and expelled members of rival ethnic groups from areas they control. But the Bosnian Serbs have indulged in so-called ``ethnic cleansing'' to a degree that dwarfs the practices of the Muslims and Croats.
The Banja Luka area has witnessed some of the worst atrocities against non-Serbs in the 72 percent of Bosnia overrun by the Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serbs during the 26-month-old conflict.
While persecution has eased elsewhere, UN officials say, it persists unabated in the Banja Luka area, where an estimated 40,000 Muslims and 30,000 Croats are the largest non-Serb population left under Bosnian Serb control.
Most are banned from working, and many have had their properties seized.
Many are too terrified to leave their homes for fear of being beaten, killed, or picked up for forced labor in fields or trench-digging on front lines, UN officials say.
In the worst incident this year, more than 20 Muslim civilians were killed in March in Prijedor, northwest of Banja Luka, to avenge the battlefield deaths of six Bosnian Serb policemen.
Despite charges they were assisting in ethnic cleansing, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and UNHCR had been evacuating non-Serbs facing threats to their lives.
Non-Serbs could also arrange their evacuations by paying fees to their local Bosnian Serb Red Cross offices.
But when the ICRC offered to take out all non-Serbs who wished to leave after the Prijedor killings, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic banned their evacuations and deployed additional police there.
Muslims were then forced to turn to the Bosnian Serb businessmen offering one-way rides to safety.
Many sacrificed what little money they still had left, says Manuel Almeida, a senior UNHCR official in Zagreb.
``This is in all likelihood their last resources that are being taken,'' says Mr. Almeida.
Some refugees do not regard the businessmen as war profiteers, but as saviors offering the only means of escape now available from terror, oppression, and uncertain fates.
``I don't want him painted in black. He is definitely helping people,'' says a refugee of Petkovic. ``He did not do us any harm. He helped us.''
But other refugees and UNHCR officials say Petkovic and other convoy organizers are reaping fortunes off human misery. And, they say, they are not the only ones.
The businessmen use some of the refugees' money to pay bribes and ``road taxes'' at Bosnian Serb police checkpoints and at those controlled by Serb rebels in the adjacent Krajina territory of Croatia, across which the convoys must pass.
Many refugees are also searched and robbed of cash and jewelry at the checkpoints, UNHCR officials and refugees say.
``At the last Serbian checkpoint, there are women gynecologists who check women to see if they are hiding gold or money,'' says Alessandra Morelli, the senior UNHCR official at the Gasinci camp.
Says Seada, a refugee who arrived at Gasinci on June 1: ``I was body-searched. Women police searched us. You were allowed to take only 30 [deutche] marks per person.''
Before they are allowed to leave their homes, the Muslims must obtain a dozen different permits, clearances, and documents, each costing $6 to $12, from local Bosnian Serb authorities.
The men must also pay a ``war tax'' of $120, refugees say. The tax for Muslim women is $60.
As a final humiliation, the Muslims must pay their outstanding utility bills, the refugees say.
Refugees all relate similar tales of how their convoys were arranged.
They say that they paid their local Bosnian Serb Red Cross offices earlier this year to arrange their evacuations, but that no action was forthcoming.
Contact was made through intermediaries with the Bosnian Serb convoy organizers. After deals were struck, the refugees paid their fees and were then informed when they would be picked up.
The buses drive to Bosanska Gradiska, where they cross the Sava River into Croatia's Western Slavonija region, part of which is rebel Serb-held Krajina.
The refugees are dropped off at a UN peacekeeping force checkpoint on the Western Slavonija frontlines. There, they wait until Croatian and UNHCR officials arrange transport to Gasinci.
More than 600 refugees, however, disappeared before they could be taken to Gasinci and are now believed to have dispersed across Croatia.
That prompted Croatia, already burdened with about 3,000 refugees, to call publicly last week on UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for international action to halt the continued persecution of non-Serbs in the Banja Luka area.