The nightmare of Bosnia: Thousands trek over mountains

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(First Edition)

EIGHT THOUSAND Bosnian Muslims trekked through mountains and forests to escape Serbian forces who had plundered their homes and burned their villages, a group of Muslim refugees said yesterday. Speaking at a former tourist camp site in Split that has been turned into a refugee centre, the Muslims said they had fled their villages in early June and travelled on foot and by tractor, car and bus to reach the safety of the Adriatic coast.

Semira Mekan, 27, a former literature student at Banja Luka University in northern Bosnia, said the convoy was made up mostly of women, children and elderly men, but also included some young Muslim men who had no weapons and were unable to join Bosnia's territorial defence forces. She said three elderly men had stayed behind in her village, Doganovci, and had been rounded up by Serbian forces who sent them to a detention camp in the town of Donji Vakuf, north-west of Sarajevo. 'We have heard nothing of them since.'

The refugees came from 16 mainly Muslim villages that lie between Donji Vakuf and the town of Jajce to the north. They named the villages as Torlakovac, Vinac, Ipota, Kasumi, Sokolina, Kokic, Serici, Dogani, Sandzak, Staro Selo, Dobro Brdo, Bavar, Grabanta, Osmici, Seliste and Doganovci. The refugees said the Serbian forces, who included some Serbs from the villages, seized everything valuable from their homes and razed them to the ground. In Torlakovac one refugee said a new concrete mosque had been under construction when the Serbian forces arrived. 'The Chetniks (Serbs) could not burn it down, so they used mines instead.'

Miss Mekan said she watched from a hilltop as the Serbs started to burn Torlakovac at 5.30 one afternoon in early June. 'I saw it happen as if it was happening on the palm of my hand,' she said.

She said that on 4 June near Dobro Brdo a band of eight young Muslim men from the villages retaliated by ambushing a Serbian unit with hunting rifles. The men succeeded in killing 23 Serbs, but one Serbian soldier who was seriously wounded managed to detonate a hand grenade and killed three of the Muslims.

The 8,000 villagers travelled for two days and nights across mountainous, wooded terrain to reach the town of Travnik. About 2,500 went on foot, Miss Mekan said. At Travnik the group dispersed. Some moved on to Novi Travnik, where they spent 20 days, before they made their way south through Bugojno to Split. During the journey two Muslim women gave birth and a third died of exhaustion.

The refugees managed to elude the Serbian forces by keeping in radio contact with Bosnian military units who advised them when it was safe to travel. One said food was so scarce that she had seen two children and their mother eating grass.

The refugees now live in Italian-supplied tents, are given meals and can swim in the sea. 'We all live in hope that before the winter comes the (Bosnian) territorial forces will have liberated our homeland and we will be able to go home,' said Miss Mekan. 'The sea is interesting for a couple of weeks, but we miss the green grass and trees of home.'