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Babo's lost tribe is on the road to nowhere

Emma Daly in Vojnic, Croatia, on the plight of the 30,000 Muslims still faithful to warlord Fikret Abdic
If blind faith brought victory, the 30,000 Abdic Muslims would rule Bosnia. As it is, for the second time in a year, the man they call "Babo" (Daddy) has led his people into defeat and exile, after the collapse of his Krajina Serb allies under the Croatian onslaught two weeks ago.

The citizens of Velika Kladusa, the pampered corner of Bihac once controlled by Fikret Abdic, a stout Bosnian Muslim entrepreneur who made peace with the Serbs and war with Sarajevo, are camping out again in a vain and desperate search for a home abroad. They fled the Bosnian Army V Corps in panic, moving north into Croatia until their path was blocked by Zagreb's army.

They have settled along the verges of a country lane, beside rolling green minefields, throwing up a dusty No Man's Land of maize huts and plastic awnings, augmented by trucks and tractor-trailers, nearly 5 miles long. The pathetic tribe, unwanted by all governments but the one it fought, survives on humanitarian hand-outs, vegetables and livestock looted from Serb homes and unquestioning loyalty to Babo.

"He is the best leader - we will find no better. What he offers us is peace, work and freedom," said Ismet Baltic, a middle-aged man sitting on a rough bench outside a shelter built of plastic sheeting, killing time and chatting to his uncle. UN tankers dispensed drinkable water at a stand pipe as Red Cross workers sat in a tent compiling messages to and from people still in Kladusa.

"I have not seen my family for a year and a half," Mr Baltic said. "They are living under V Corps control ... I've heard they are alive and OK. But my old mother, who is 60, has been beaten several times." He had no intention of returning to Bihac, for fear of reprisals from the Bosnian Army, but was vague over any alternative destination - "probably Europe".

But Abdic Muslims should have learnt the hard way that Europe has no interest in providing them refuge. In August 1994 Kladusa fell to the V Corps, and for three months the Abdic tribe lived at a chicken farm, refused passage across the front-line by the Croats. It was not until the Serbs re-took Kladusa in December that the Muslims returned home.

Some crack jokes - "every August we go camping" - but the fear of the V Corps is real if, in the UN's eyes, unfounded. The Bosnian government has offered an amnesty to all Abdic soldiers and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has delayed registering the Kladusa Muslims as asylum-seekers in the hope that they will go home.

The agency believes it can ensure their safety and discourage revenge attacks - but any man returning fit to Bihac is, at the very least, in grave danger of being drafted for the battle with the Bosnian Serbs to the south and east. And although the Abdic Muslims eat well while their leader blocked aid convoys to government areas, where people came close to starving, they suffered in the front-line fight with V Corps.

Amputees are everywhere, perched on the grass verge, swinging past on crutches, in wheelchairs rolled slowly through the mud. Other men stand around in groups, gossiping, whipping cart-horses along or manoeuvring tractors loaded with loot - sheep, furniture and potatoes mostly - between the rudimentary huts.

Aid workers have distributed food, water and shelter materials, doctors are treating hundreds of diarrhoea cases and the occasional victim of random gunfire - as usual, soldiers in the area relieve their boredom by firing off a magazine or two.

Smoke from dozens of camp fires drifts over the road, where the most efficient housekeepers have set up white enamel wood stoves, a pot of rags boiling here, an apple pie baking there. It is a dreadful site, the few streams filled with excrement and litter, the sun broiling, the flies swarming, the people ready for the long haul.

"The people say they don't care what kind of conditions they are living in as long as they don't have to go back," said Michael Frey of the International Committee of the Red Cross. But winter will set in soon: time and the lack of options may change many minds.

The Croat government - which tried hard to force the refugees to turn back - is to run shuttle buses from the camp to Kladusa soon, and aid agencies hope that contact with Bihac will encourage all but the most stubborn, the guilty and the terrified to return home. But they will need the help of Mr Abdic.

"His word is of very great importance for them - if he tells them it is safe to go back, I think they will," said Mans Nyberg of the UNHCR. "But for him everything is business, I don't know what he will get out of these negotiations." Perhaps a grudging assurance from Sarajevo that he will not be pursued and tried for treason.

"We will see where Fikret goes and follow him," said Vahid Baltic firmly. "He is not to be blamed for this, but he left and we followed him as we always do." Mr Abdic, rumoured to be under house arrest in Zagreb, has the money and foreign contacts to go anywhere (except Austria, where he is wanted on fraud charges, and Bosnia). His people, however, are on the road to nowhere.