Banja Luka boat people swell tide of misery

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The Independent Online


Now the stories of horror, the crumpled faces and the plastic bags of scraped-together possessions are spilling out on the banks of the River Sava.

"The soldiers came three days ago. They told us to get out," said one old woman as she struggled up the muddy bank towards the Croat village of Davor. "The Serbs are now living in my house. I saw them yesterday. They were Serbs from Knin and Karlovac."

Lubica Yovic was her name. A Bosnian Croat, she had lived all her life in Banja Luka, the Serb-held Bosnian town which lay just an hour away across the river. But yesterday she joined a miserable trail of 1,500 Croat refugees driven out by the Banja Luka Serbs to make way for Serbian refugees arriving in another direction from their former homes in Krajina. Before the war there were an estimated 80,000 Croats in the Banja Luka region of Bosnia. But after yesterday's exodus there are probably only 2,000. By the end of the week, the Serbs will have ensured that there are no Croats in the town.

The exodus from Banja Luka is the latest phase of "ethnic cleansing" set in train by the Croat recapture of Krajina 10 days ago, which led to the flight of 150,000 Serbs into Serb-held areas of Bosnia and to Serbia. Political leaders in the West appear to hope that these latest population shifts might finally pave the way to peace as Croats, Serbs and Muslims are finally contained together on the land they claim as theirs. But nobody who has watched the sight of traumatised refugees on the roads of former Yugoslavia in recent days can understand the reasoning.

Yesterday afternoon the river bank outside the small Croat village was quiet apart from the idling engines of European Union monitors' vehicles and United Nations trucks waiting to carry the new arrivals away.

Four small boats were moored at the ready on the Croat side in the swift- flowing current. The River Sava marks the border here between Bosnia and Croatia and on the other side Serbian soldiers could be seen lounging under trees waiting for the boat people to arrive. On the Croat side, relatives had gathered, hoping their loved ones would manage to have escaped.

On Tuesday, 17,000 Croats from Banja Luka made the crossing and the Croat government has been well prepared with officials waiting with noisy typewriters preparing lists for new arrivals.

At 2pm the UN radios crackled to announce that the buses from Banja Luka were arriving and the little boats sped off. One by one they loaded, lurching through the water, their outboard motors whining with the weight.

The bags and the people were pulled into helping hands and the crying started. "I have left my house. I have left my life. Everything I had was there", said a mother clutching a tattered suitcase clipped with a giant safety pin. She opened it to show a cup, a blanket and some medicine - all she had salvaged. "I can't go back. My village has been taken by the Serbs."

Sister Maria, a Croat nun, was scanning the boats for her 81-year-old mother, whom she had not seen for seven years. "Don't ask me what this is all about, why people do this to each other. I just hope my mother had the courage to escape," she said.

The accounts of these Croat refugees confirm reports that the Bosnian Serbs of Banja Luka have launched a massive new wave of deportations since the arrival of the Krajina Serbs last week. Many of the arrivals here were simply forced from their houses at gunpoint. The men had been ordered to join the Bosnian Serb forces and had fled. Most had been forced to pay their Serbian masters for the passage. About a 1,000 German Marks bought a ticket for this river crossing to an unknown future. All said they had been forced to sign papers saying they were leaving everything.

Dako, a 40-year-old Croat, had fled Banja Luka a month ago after Serb forces ordered him to their front line. He, like all the others arriving here, had no identity, no papers other than their old documents from former Yugoslavia. The date on Dako's pad was 15.3.92. "I got it just before the war," he laughed. "I am a Bosnian. I don't want Croat citizenship but now I have no identity."

There to observe the latest exodus were EU monitors, dressed in pristine white, their EU emblems flapping in the breeze. Here also were UN officials and the Red Cross, all ready to assist the struggling boat people, to ease the pain of the latest "cleansing".

By 4pm the little boats had crossed the water perhaps 30 times, but the refugees from Banja Luka were still queuing on the other side.