Bosnia talks come too late for refugees: In his first dispatch from the former Yugoslavia, Robert Fisk in Karlovac writes about victims of 'ethnic cleansing'

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THE LONDON conference came too late for Zlatan Vilic. 'It is finished. Our home is gone, burnt. My mother and father were killed. How can we ever return? To what?'

He is sitting shirtless in the heat beneath the pine trees, staring at the grass as he speaks, his voice a monotone as a machine-gun putters away on the other side of the Korana river. The Bosnian Muslim refugees around him listen intently to his story until a young woman with a baby begins to cry.

Sevla Haskic, 66, sobs too. 'They drove me from my home in Kozarac near Prijedor - everyone put out a white flag and the Serbs led us 6km (4 miles) to the camp at Trnopolye,' he says. 'I didn't even lock my front door. I heard about the conference on a friend's radio. But how can I go back to a house that has been burnt?'

In the shell-holed Karlovac sports stadium across the road, you hear the same story over and over again. The building roars with the shouting of children and the long, muttered conversations of angry men. They are sitting, sleeping and eating, hundreds of them, on tier after tier of benches above a wooden basketball court.

The place smells of human bodies. The 'ethnically cleansed' find it difficult to keep clean. They are the dispossessed of Bosnia whose 'right to return' John Major was defending yesterday. But high principles have little place at Karlovac. The words that come to mind are 'too late'.

Take Hussein - too frightened to give his family name - who until 31 May used to drive the local bus between Bosanski Novi and Sanski-Most. He is a handsome man of 35 whose two children play in the corridor beside his mattress. He has not seen his wife since the Serbs led him off to the camps at Prijedor and Keraterm.

His 45 days of hunger there do not impair his memory of the day he left his home. 'They shelled our village of Agice for 24 hours and then the Serbs came in with lists of young men they wanted. I was lucky. I was on the list - all the others were shot dead. The Red Cross later found me and took me back to my old home. I had been ordered to leave the key in the lock. I saw the place again.

'The furniture was still there and the deep-freeze but everything else was gone, even the key. They were burning the village. My mother was guarding my children but my wife was separated from us. She has gone. I never saw her again.'

Can he return? 'I'm not a big politician like the men in London,' he says. 'Everybody's happiest place is the place of his birth. If the politicians let me go back, I will go, even to my burnt-out home. But where is my wife?'

Hussein's cousin Safed, from the Bosnian village of Blaguy, is not so sure. 'When they came into our village, they chose the men who were rich, who had land, and made them run down the street. They fired with machine-guns. I saw them killed and lying on the ground . . .'

Too late has the London conference come for Alic Camir, Blaguy's largest farmer, who owned 200 head of cattle; too late for the local butcher of Blaguy, Imsikovic Samid; too late for farmers Arapovic Saban and Arapovic Alaga. Safed saw them all shot down.

Muslims the refugees may be, but there is no sign of the Islamic fundamentalism of which the Serbs warn so often. Few said they prayed at their mosque on Fridays, even fewer claimed to have read the Koran. None could speak Arabic, the language of the Prophet. Nor did any of the women wear scarves. They were Europeans on the run from Europeans, waiting, no doubt in vain, for Europeans in a European capital - London - to enable them to go home.

Karlovac itself is a miserable end of the road for the Muslims of Bosnia, its southern suburbs already smashed by shells, its old cottages roofless, their wooden beams burnt, glass over the roads. The news of Lord Carrington's resignation had not penetrated the despair of the homeless Muslims at Karlovac, though their hatred towards him - and contempt for Britain, which they identified with Serbia - was evident.

'The British can't help us now,' Zlatan Vilic said as the machine-guns thumped on across the orchards. 'Carrington buried the Bosnians forever. The conference is too late. There's no Bosnia anymore. It's on fire.'