Thousands trek to freedom over mountains: In Split, Tony Barber meets a group of Muslim refugees who walked for two months to escape the Serbian forces looting and burning their villages

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The Independent Online
EIGHT THOUSAND Bosnian Muslims trekked through mountains and forests to escape Serbian forces who had plundered their homes and burned their villages, a group of Muslim refugees said yesterday.

Speaking at a former tourist camp site in Split that has been turned into a refugee centre, the Muslims said they had fled their villages in early June and travelled on foot and by tractor, car and bus to reach the safety of the Adriatic coast.

Semira Mekan, 27, a former literature student at Banja Luka University in northern Bosnia, said the convoy was made up mostly of women, children and elderly men, but also included some young Muslim men who had no weapons and were unable to join Bosnia's territorial defence forces.

She said three elderly men had stayed behind in her village, Doganovci, and had been rounded up by Serbian forces who sent them to a detention camp in the town of Donji Vakuf, north-west of Sarajevo. 'We have heard nothing of them since.'

The refugees came from 16 mainly Muslim villages that lie between Donji Vakuf and the town of Jajce to the north. They named the villages as Torlakovac, Vinac, Ipota, Kasumi, Sokolina, Kokic, Serici, Dogani, Sandzak, Staro Selo, Dobro Brdo, Bavar, Grabanta, Osmici, Seliste and Doganovci. The refugees said the Serbian forces, who included some Serbs from the villages, seized everything valuable from their homes and razed them to the ground.

In the village of Torlakovac one refugee said a new mosque had been under construction when the Serbian forces arrived. 'The minaret had not yet been completed, but the structure of the mosque was very strong and made of concrete. The Chetniks (Serbs) could not burn it down, so they used mines instead.'

Miss Mekan said she watched from a hilltop as the Serbs started to burn Torlakovac at 5.30 one afternoon in early June. 'I saw it happen as if it was happening on the palm of my hand,' she said. All 120 houses in her village had been destroyed.

She said that on 4 June near Dobro Brdo a band of eight young Muslim men from the villages retaliated by ambushing a Serbian unit with hunting rifles. The men succeeded in killing 23 Serbs, but one Serbian soldier who was seriously wounded managed to detonate a hand grenade and killed three of the Muslims.

The 8,000 villagers travelled for two days and nights across mountainous, wooded terrain to reach the town of Travnik. About 2,500 went on foot, Miss Mekan said. After spending one night at Travnik, the group dispersed.

Some of its members moved on to Novi Travnik, where they spent 20 days, before they made their way south through Bugojno to Split. During the journey, two Muslim women gave birth and a third died of exhaustion. The refugees said they had dug a grave with axes and buried the woman after an imam who was travelling with them performed a funeral service.

The refugees described their journey as arduous and harrowing, but said they had managed to elude the Serbian forces by keeping in radio contact with Bosnian military units who advised them when it was safe to travel. One refugee said that food was so scarce that she had seen two children and their mother eating grass.

The refugees now live in tents supplied by Italy, in a camp site called Stobrec outside Split which houses about 1,000 people. They are given three meals a day and can swim in the sea, but they lack hot running water.

'We all live in hope that before the winter comes the (Bosnian) territorial forces will have liberated our homeland and that we will be able to go home,' said Miss Mekan. 'We don't want to live in Croatia or abroad. We all have a strong urge to return to our homes and rebuild them.

'The sea is interesting for a couple of weeks, but we miss the green grass and trees of home.'