Abdic rebels find cold comfort in ruined town

Emma Daly in Velika Kladusa finds the Serbs' Muslim allies are ruing a Pyrrhic victory in north-west Bosnia

The Bosnian war has come late to the people of Velika Kladusa, a small town tucked in the north-west Bihac pocket on the border with Serb-held Croatia. For most of the war, Velika Kladusa, the only town in the "Autonomous Province of Western Bosni a", the rebellious fiefdom of the Muslim entrepreneur, Fikret Abdic, went about its business, more or less unscathed.

But, last August, the Bosnian government Fifth Corps took the town, prompting about 30,000 Abdic loyalists to flee. Four months later, the tide turned and the exiles came home to taste the bitter fruits of victory - looted houses, no running water, humanitarian aid, power cuts and a 2pm curfew. Still, they say they are happy to be back.

The main street and park, bearing the occasional shell mark but otherwise unscarred, are thronged with people carrying water containers, children mooching, the occasional car or horse-drawn cart. Many of the women gathered around the water-tanks providedby the UN and the Red Cross are dressed in long gathered skirts, rubber shoes, and headscarves, their faces stoical and without expression.

"Yes, I'm pleased to be back but I've lost the only son I had," said Saha Catic, a middle-aged woman, waiting for water.

"He was killed last November, and so was my son-in-law, by the Fifth Corps. I have nothing left but his child, three-year-old Alma, and his widow." Close to tears, she pondered her situation, the war and Mr Abdic. "I don't know what I think. For me, nothing counts any more."

The atmosphere was sullen in spite of bright sunshine - the result of queuing for water, perhaps, or of a sense that their victory was Pyrrhic. At 1.55pm, the streets started to empty, people began to run home, afraid of being caught out after curfew. By2.10pm, it was a ghost town, deserted save for the military police on duty in the main square.

Officially there are no Serbian forces in Velika Kladusa. Officially, the town was retaken from the battle-hardened Bosnian Fifth Corps by the 10,000 members of the "People's Defence of Western Bosnia" - Mr Abdic's army of refugees. It is surprising, therefore, to see the Serbian acronym "SSSS" (Only Unity Saves the Serbs) in Cyrillic on a soldier's rifle.

"There has been a lot of speculation about the involvement of the Serb Krajina army and the Bosnian Serb army, but they have no physical presence or involvement here," said Ramo Hirkic, the "Minister for Economy". "That's done on purpose, so as not to minimise the contribution of our units."

Across the room, a joyful Fikret Abdic gazes out from a portrait bearing the legend "I am here". It is not strictly true. Mr Hirkic is in charge, although his leader, he says, is "somewhere on the free territory of Western Bosnia". That has shrunk since August 1993, when Mr Abdic rebelled against Sarajevo, made peace with the Bosnian Serbs and directed his business talents towards the promotion of trade with Zagreb and its enemies, the Croatian Serbs.

"We have had logistical support from the Krajina Serb army - food, clothes and training - but we are paying for that," Mr Hirkic said. "There is no [Serbian] artillery support; we have our own artillery."

This is not how the United Nations observers see the situation. "There is absolutely no question about the Krajina Serb presence," said one official. "They are very much involved. All the firepower is provided by the Krajina Serbs. Abdic has no military power. Abdic does not have an army worth the name - just bandits."

A Krajina Serb officer denied his army was active in Bihac but added: "I believe there are some [Serbian] hired guns in Kladusa." It is difficult to prove Krajina Serb involvement, other than artillery support, which is obvious. Most of the shelling comes from Serb-held areas.

On the border between Serb-held Croatia and Velika Kladusa, military jeeps cross regularly and are not subject to searches.

"The best evidence is the casualties," the UN official said. "Eighty per cent of those killed [in the fight for Velika Kladusa] were Krajina Serbs. And at body exchanges, the majority have been Krajina Serbs."

UN staff have reported Serbian disillusionment with Mr Abdic and a feeling that his forces are unworthy of their help. Without Serbian support, it will be difficult for Mr Abdic to defend his fiefdom.

"Our military says the Fifth Corps could come back and take Velika Kladusa at any time, if they want it," the UN official said.

This is a grim prospect for the thousands who fled earlier to a sordid chicken farm at Batnoga, or the dour and dangerous no man's land at Turanj - who spent nearly five months at the two makeshift refugee camps in Krajina and thought they were coming home for good.

"We have endured so much, we can stand this too," said Jolanda Niksic, as she queued for water. "We've survived so much we can't be destroyed by anything." War and exile have hardened the people of Velika Kladusa but, without the help of Mr Abdic's Serbian allies, they remain horribly vulnerable. The dream of "Western Bosnia" lies dead and buried in the rubble of Velika Kladusa.

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