Bosnian Refugees Describe Forced Labor in Serb Areas

UN official calls abuses `nothing less than slavery'

REMI had wanted time to prepare for the bus ride to safety in Croatia for which she and dozens of her Muslim neighbors had sacrificed most of their meager savings.

But local Bosnian Serb authorities had other plans for them on the eve of their departures.

``We were made to work even the day before we left. We had wanted to get ready for this trip, but they said we had to go work in the fields,'' recounted Remi in an interview with the Monitor at the Gasinci Refugee Camp near Djakovo in eastern Croatia.

The young peasant is among almost 900 Muslim refugees who paid Bosnian Serb businessmen to arrange their escapes earlier this month from lives of anguish and torment in the northern Bosnian-Serb stronghold of Banja Luka.

Remi is also a victim of what UN refugee officials are calling a ``new trend'' in abuse against the estimated 70,000 Muslims and Croats who remain in the Banja Luka area after 26 months of ``ethnic cleansing.''

Quoting the new arrivals, these officials say that Muslim and Croat women, banned from holding regular jobs, are now being compelled to join men in performing forced labor.

``I don't care what you call it,'' says Alessandra Morelli, the chief United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees official at the Gasinci camp. ``It's nothing less than slavery.''

UNHCR officials say that among other tasks, non-Serb women are being press ganged into digging battlefield trenches.

``In the Banja Luka region ... women are being rounded up in the streets for forced labor and even trench-digging,'' says Manuel Almeida, a senior UNHCR official in Zagreb.

``Women of Muslim-Croat origins are being forced to cook for the Bosnian Serb army in the Prijedor area, sweep streets, and there are refugees who have told us they have been forced to dig trenches in front-line areas,'' says UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler.

``I have people who were forced to dig trenches for 40 to 50 days in Brcko with only a little food and water,'' Ms. Morelli says.

Brcko, located on the Sava River, sits at the narrowest part of the corridor that links Serbia with Bosnian Serb-held northern Bosnia and the rebel Serb-controlled Krajina region of Croatia.

All sides in the Bosnian war are known to have violated the 1949 Geneva conventions by forcing prisoners of war and civilian men to perform dangerous and degrading jobs known as ``work obligation.''

But just like the practice of ethnic cleansing, international aid officials and human rights monitors say the Bosnian Serbs have forced civilians to work to a far greater degree than their rivals.

The situation around Banja Luka is especially bad, UN officials say, because its Muslims and Croats constitute the largest non-Serb population still under Bosnian Serb control.

Aid workers privately say the international community could have greatly eased the plight of the area's Muslims and Croats by pursuing the deployment of UN troops around Banja Luka as planned in 1993.

Local Bosnian Serb leaders accepted tens of thousands of dollars from UN Protection Forces to provide facilities for the troops and then blocked their deployment. The UN hierarchy declined to pressure the Serbs into allowing UN troops into Banja Luka, and just dropped the matter. ``It's a question of the resolve of the international community,'' one UN official says.

``Women and men are forced to work for the Serbs,'' Remi says. ``Women are forced to work in the fields, and men have so-called `work obligation.' They are taken to other villages to remove tiles from roofs and build things.''

Other refugees relate similar tales.

Some say they were even required to labor in fields that they themselves had owned until they were confiscated and given to Bosnian Serb neighbors or Bosnian Serb refugees resettled from other parts of the country.

Several refugees alleged that hundreds of Muslim men and women are confined for forced labor purposes in Siprage, a village about 30 miles southeast of Banja Luka and some 15 miles north of Mount Vlasic, where the Bosnian Army has been on the offensive.

``There are about 600 people out of 5,700 remaining there,'' says a young refugee, who declined to be named. ``They are surrounded. It's like a concentration camp. Some are in their homes, but most are in some kind of collection center.

``They have to dig trenches, and they have to work,'' says the young man. ``I was told about it by a Bosnian Serb soldier who is a friend of mine and risked his life to come to visit me.''

Another refugee says he has two relatives confined in Siprage.

Independent confirmation of the Siprage allegations was unavailable.

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