Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia Goes on Despite Cease-Fire
UN is not allowed to monitor sites where Serbs oust Muslims
OKUCANI, CROATIA — THE shaky four-month cessation of hostilities agreement in Bosnia-Herzegovina appears to have done little to slow the ``ethnic cleansing'' of thousands of Muslims and Croats from Bosnian Serb territory.
Hundreds of mostly Muslim residents of Serb-controlled areas in western Bosnia have continued to stream into Croatia this month and report that the Serb tactics of firing Muslims and Croats from their jobs, denying them medical care, and forcing men to dig trenches and lay mines along Bosnian Serb front lines continue.
The Bosnian Serbs promised in the Dec. 31 agreement to allow the positioning of United Nations human rights monitors in the northern towns of Banja Luka and Bijeljina. But three weeks after the agreement was signed, Bosnian Serbs continue to deny access to the areas, according to UN officials.
In interviews, several of the 400 newly arrived refugees living in a temporary UN holding facility here say Serb harassment and the failure of the international community to help them led them to flee Bosnia.
``You live some kind of life between a dog and man. So many times, I wished I was dead,'' says a young man, who said he was forced with 15 other Muslims from Banja Luka to spend two months digging trenches on the front line near strategic Brcko.
A man who says he was forced to work without pay in a furniture factory in Bosanska Gradiska since 1992 also bitterly criticizes the international community. ``Whatever is not Serbian doesn't have any value,'' he shouts. ``It's fascism in the 21st century. Even Hitler wasn't as bad as this. The world has to stop this.''
Fikret, a middle-aged man whose wrinkled face and hunched shoulders make him appear frail and elderly, says he was forced to spend six months working on the front lines in the Livno area.
``We didn't have a single day of rest, 18 hours per day,'' he says, as he huddles in a worn leather jacket and brown knit cap. ``In the evening ... we had to sing their songs ... I was beaten and tortured. It was like death.''
Amara Kadic, a young refugee whose brother was taken to the front line, says Muslims are systematically fired from their jobs, denied medical insurance, and harassed to the point where they feel they must leave.
``There is no money ... the greatest problem is work,'' she says. ``We have no future there. I paid $215 to leave,'' Ms. Kadic says.
It is impossible to verify their claims, but UN officials say the stories are typical. ``It's very systematic; it's been going on since the beginning of the war,'' says Gregory Austreng, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees field office in the area. ``The process of cleansing has worked itself to the point where people want to leave themselves.''
According to the UNHCR officials, 6,585 people have arrived in Croatia from Banja Luka and Western Bosnia since last May. Bosnian Serb officials say the Muslims and Croats are leaving voluntarily, but aid officials disagree. ``The perpetrators of these crimes,'' says one aid official, ``have realized you really don't need to resort to physical violence to get these people to leave.''
Because far more violent and overt methods, such as alleged death camps, random abductions, and forcibly evicting Muslims in box cars were used in the early days of the war, the steady departures this year have generated little interest in the media. Reported incidents of Muslims being killed in apparent revenge for Serbs who died in the war have continued in Serb-controlled areas over the last year, but have been less systematic.
In a familiar routine, Muslims and Croats must pay the Serbian Red Cross and other private agencies masquerading as aid groups to leave. Most sign over their belongings and their homes. The ``aid'' agencies then transport the Muslims to the border, where they are picked up by the UN.
``You had all the concentration camps at the beginning of the war [in this area], and since then the story has gone on the back burner,'' Mr. Austreng says.
In the 400-square-yard camp, elderly refugees huddle inside a large tent crammed with bunk beds and space heaters. Outside, dozens of refugees ranging from farmers in ragged clothes to well-dressed professionals walk around in circles inside the barbed-wire enclosed compound to stay warm in the bitter cold.
Teenagers and children cluster in quiet groups, staring blankly at strangers. Most people seemed suspicious, edgy, and hostile, but when spoken to would only say they were happy to be out of Bosnia.
``I left only to save my, my child, and my wife's life,'' Fikret says. ``I have no papers. I have no idea what I'm going to do.''
Aid workers predict the ``soft'' ethnic cleansing will continue. ``I don't think the world has the intestinal fortitude to stop it,'' Austreng says.