Innocents banished to the ends of the earth: Robert Fisk in Novska spoke to Muslims and Croats forced from their land

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The Independent Online
THE OLD man was 90, shrivelled in the corner of the bus, surrounded by plastic cases, his face white and eyes brimful of tears. When he seized my hand, I felt as if I had been grasped by a skeleton. 'I have lost everything, my home, my country, everything,' he said, his voice breaking high like a child's. 'They took it all, all I had. And then they made me pay to leave, to go away from my country forever. I shall never return.' Ethnic cleansing made easy: you no longer kill Muslims and burn their homes, you make them sign away their property, order them out 'voluntarily' and make them pay pounds 105 for permission.

There must have been 200 Muslims and a handful of Croats on the three scruffy buses trucked off from Banja Luka with their old shoes and coats and family snapshots, their cases lining the corridor of the buses as the last sight of Bosnia slipped away from them. The bridge across the Sava at Bosanska Gradiska was a fitting end to their lives of happiness, spanning one of the bloodiest rivers in Europe, transit point between the Serbs and Croats, who are carving up Bosnia.

So distraught were these banished innocents - deportees, refugees, exiles, emigres, expellees, call them what you will - that they did not notice the irony of their protection on the other bank of the Sava. They passed into the hands of the Jordanian UN contingent in Croatia, a Muslim army which cannot fight for Muslims, only receive them from their tormentors and allow them half-an-hour's rest alongside Tito's old Motorway of Brotherhood and Unity. Some young Muslim men sat in the long grass near the second bus, silent, heads bowed, future destroyed. 'We are tired and frightened and we cannot talk to you because the Serb drivers are spies,' one of them muttered. 'They are going back to Bosnia and we still have families in Banja Luka.'

A Croat woman, bespectacled, dressed in black, a woman of education with a tiny crucifix round her neck, broke down when I asked her how she left her home. 'I left with the deepest regret in my heart,' she said. 'It is all I ever had.' A young female lecturer stood beside her husband, tears running from her eyes. 'We hope to go to Germany with our child,' she said. 'We will try to start a new life.' Several of these young men and women - so freshly 'cleansed' from their homes that they scarcely realised they had just lost their nationality - held visas to Germany and Sweden and the United States. Many had no passports, let alone visas.

I had not been with them for 10 minutes before a tall, narrow-faced man in a blue shirt, speaking near-perfect English, approached me. 'Why are you asking these questions?' he wanted to know. 'Don't you realise that by exciting these people, you help to spread enmity, you help to keep the war alive?' He was a Serb or - to use his own sinister description - a 'Serb guide', ensuring that these mistreated people left their country as instructed. Did he think the bus passengers were happy, I asked him?

'Of course not,' he said. 'There were bad things that happened. We know that. I feel sorry for them. Tell me, who did you talk to here?' He wanted names. As the man in the grass had said, these Muslims had families in Banja Luka. The English-speaker was a spy. The whole miserable convoy was a Serb operation; the deportees had been assembled at the Serbian Red Cross office in Banja Luka - an institution that plays an active role in the 'ethnic cleansing' of Bosnia. Muslims pay their 'exit tax' to a man in the Red Cross office in Banja Luka - first door on the left through the entrance - who did not even tell the International Red Cross or the British UN relief officer in the town that the convoy was leaving.

A thin, prematurely aged woman called Sadeqa avoided the Serb 'guide' and said quietly that there was nothing 'voluntary' about her deportation. 'They say we are swapping homes with Serbs in Croatia but it is untrue. The Serbs had killed my neighbour and I had to leave or I would have been shot. I have come with my mother and daughter. We locked our front door. My mother took the key with her as a souvenir.'

An hour earlier, the International Red Cross had collected another 20 Muslims from Sanski Most - to be reunited in the Croatian town of Karlovac with their menfolk who had spent six months in the Manjaca concentration camp - and they too had to travel up through their own ruined villages towards the Sava, watched with contempt by the Serbs in the streets as they sat in the Red Cross truck, on one occasion receiving an obscene gesture from a Serb boy in Rasavci. At the bridge, the Serbs checked their names while a middle- aged woman approached the lorry with a small bag of apples. She had heard her sister was being exiled that day and thought she would be on the convoy. Then she recognised the face of a woman in the truck and raised her arms through the wooden side- boards and held hands with her sister.

Under Jordanian escort, the buses were driven to the little Croatian station at Novska, a pretentious Austro-Hungarian building beside the old Zagreb-Belgrade railway. And here on the hot platform, the Palestinians of Bosnia sat on their luggage in silence. Sadeqa showed me her book of family snapshots. 'That is me in the garden.' A monochrome picture of a young, pretty Sadeqa just after her marriage. 'That is in our garden, the wedding party for our cousin five years ago. I'm on the far left, my late husband next to me, my mother on the other side of the table.' The faces are smiling in joy, the garden bathed in sunlight and apple trees. When she tried to describe her happiness of those years, Sadeqa put her hand to her face and walked down the platform, shoulders shaking.

Sadeqa's mother, a broken woman compared with the plump lady in the picture, sat on a suitcase. Sadeqa's daughter, scowling at me for asking her mother about their life, sat on the edge of the platform and stared at the tracks. And it was difficult not to remember, looking at those railway lines in the warm afternoon, how many other exiles had been transported through this little station 50 years ago. The Jews of Greece passed through Novska to the Nazi death camps, so too did many thousands of Serb children abducted by the Croatian Ustashe in 1942. Now the newest deportees were to be carried north on the same railway line.

It was unhurried, just a single reporter and a television crew to watch the tragedy, a four-carriage electric train which almost left without the 90-year old man, bent double on two fragile sticks. In the end, they carried him across the tracks and sat him on the floor of a carriage. Thus did the Muslims of Bosnia leave Novska, not on a cattle train but on the 16.46 to Zagreb, en route to Sweden, to Germany, to the ends of the earth.