Serbs steal homes, expel remaining Muslums

The Associated Press

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina Serbs are showing a new determination to root out all remaining Muslims from Serb-held areas of northern Bosnia, taking over their homes and demanding they pay for bus rides to safety.

Since mid-July, more than 2,000 people have been forced from the Banja Luka region of northern Bosnia and Bijeljina in the northeast.

While the numbers are small compared to the mass expulsions at the start of the war in 1992, they represent a significant portion of the Muslims still living in those areas.

The expulsions have increased dramatically in recent weeks, and they appear to be more organized.

"These acts of ethnic cleansing are being condoned at the highest level," Peter Kessler, the Sarajevo-based spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Tuesday.

"Should it continue, the 3,000 Muslims who remain in Bijeljina will be cleansed within one month. This is ethnic cleansing at its worst, and the Serbs should be held accountable."

The International Committee of the Red Cross demanded on Tuesday that Bosnian Serbs stop the expulsions and "guarantee the security and dignity of minorities on their territory."

Refugees said local Serb commander Vojislav Djurkovic directly takes part in some expulsions, which usually occur at night, and personally collects money from those he expells.

Senija Kahrimanovic, a 40-year-old sales assistant, said Djurkovic and two militia men came to her home on August 22.

"They shouted, banged the door, and cursed," she said in an interview Tuesday. "They were shouting at us to pack our things, but they didn't allow us to take anything."

"One guy kicked my 67-year-old mother in the back, and slapped my brother," she added.

Kahrimanovic was wearing the same navy blue dress she wore when the men arrived. She has nothing else. Her mother and two ill brothers also left with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Kahrimanovic repeated the story told by most of the refugees.

She was given only minutes to leave her house, then transported to a collection center, where refugees entered a room one-by-one and Djurkovic demanded money and jewelry. She was forced to turn over 4,500 German marks and her jewelry.

"He said give me more or I'll put you in a camp," she recalled. "Then, they took the key to the house."

Sajda Nisic, 61, from Bijeljina, said her seven-member family slept in a field for the past month for fear that soldiers would come and rape her 19- and 21-year-old granddaughters.

She said Djurkovic had publicly ordered all Muslims to leave Bijeljina by Sept. 1, which is Thursday.

Salih Mujic, a 58-year-old truck driver, said he was forced to house a Serb militiaman and his family for 10 months before he and his wife were expelled on Saturday.

He said Djurkovic demanded $60 per person for transportation.

The refugees are bused to the front line and then made to walk across, often a distance up to 10 miles. Many of those expelled have found shelter in a university gymnasium in Tuzla, an enclave controlled by the Muslim-led government.

Men of fighting age are separated ahead of time, and aid officials believe they are taken away for forced labor, either harvesting or digging trenches near the front.

In the rush and confusion, many people lose their identification documents or invitations they need to resettle abroad.

Faced with the determined effort to remove them, more people are applying to local authorities to leave, aid officials said. In such cases, they generally are allowed to take more possessions with them.

But able-bodied men can leave unimpeded only if they come up with about $1,000, said UNHCR official Jose Eldin Gonzaga in Tuzla.

In both Banja Luka and Bijeljina, aid officials and refugees report that wealthier and more prominent Muslims were expelled first, and that Muslims' homes are taken over by Serbs.

In Travnik, where refugees from the Banja Luka region arrive, the charge for transport has dropped because the only people left are poor. The latest group paid $30 each.

"It's more important now just to get rid of them," said Samir Sefer, a Bosnian army official who receives refugees.

Rafik Sinanbegovic, a 56-year old furniture factory worker, said he started thinking about leaving his home in Sanski Most, some 23 miles west of Banja Luka, last year when men were rounded up for forced work.

He decided to leave this summer when masked men entered his home, threatened him and demanded money. As he and his family left for the bus to government territory, a Serb family arrived to move in.

"The biggest help you can get from the Serbs is to help you leave." Sinanbegovic said.

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