Refugee camp women fear Bosnia call-up

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THE WOMEN at the Cardak refugee centre are on the verge of panic. They say they lie awake at night, afraid that soon - possibly in as little as 11 days - a Yugoslav army truck like the one that took away the last of their menfolk on Wednesday will return for them. And when it does they will be separated from their children and forced back to Bosnia to join the very war they tried so hard to escape.

While the 70 Serbian women at the refugee centre most at risk from such a scenario admit that they do not have any concrete information that they will be rounded up like their husbands, brothers and fathers and taken back to the war, their fears are not unfounded. The Bosnian Serb authorities are preparing for a new round of war with Bosnia's Muslims and they need all the bodies they can lay their hands on.

On Monday, the Bosian Serbs' military high command announced the implementation of tough new measures to win the war, including the mobilisation of 'deserters' and the creation of special units for women. That same day, Serbian soldiers arrived at the Cardak refugee centre, about 40km north of Belgrade, distributing call-up slips from the Bosnian Serb army to the men. Within 48 hours, all 50 males of fighting age living at the centre, a picturesque former summer camp, had been taken away.

Since then, women have heard on news reports that all Bosnian Serb women under 45, including mothers with children older than seven, are also eligible for service. Rumours have it that all 70 women from the centre who meet the criteria will be collected by soldiers from the army of the rump Yugoslavia on 15 February.

Even the children share the unease. 'They came for the men; my littlest one is scared that the soldiers are going to come to take her too,' said one Sarajevan widow, aged 39. During the interview yesterday, her six-year-old daughter threw her arms around her mother, wailing: 'Mummy, please don't leave me.'

'Of course we are scared,' said Savka, 41, a mother of two girls aged 13 and 14, who is unquestionably subject to the terms of mobilisation. 'I don't know for sure that they will come for us, but I do know that no woman here is going anywhere without her children. The reason we left Bosnia was to protect our children.'

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has said the mobilisation is a violation of international agreements protecting refugees from enforced repatriation. But the protest has fallen on deaf ears. The Bosnian Serb authorities insist that Serbian men who have fled Bosnia for any reason are deserters, not entitled to refugee status. Whether the position holds true for women who escaped the war is unclear.

There is no doubt, however, that the Bosnian Serbs are short of manpower to defend the almost 70 per cent of Bosnia they control. For the Bosnian Serb army, women represent a rich untapped resource.

Until the mobilisation was extended to women on Monday, the round-up had focused on men. The exact number of Serbian refugees living in the rump Yugoslavia who have been forced to join the army is not known. But, faced with the choice of life on the run, arrest and confiscation of property or serving in the army, hundreds are believed to have submitted to the call-up. Many, though, have gone into hiding.

Predrag is a 26-year-old Sarajevan who left the city two years ago when the war started because he did not believe in fighting. Last week he escaped from a refugee centre just before the Yugoslav army came to collect him. He is now staying in the house of a friend on the outskirts of Belgrade. Although he is afraid of leaving the house for fear that he will be caught by Serbian police, now he is more concerned about his girlfriend than his own well-being.

'It's not enough that we have to hide ourselves, but now we also have to worry about hiding our women and children too,' he said.