Zagreb struggles to cope with tide of human misery

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IN KARLOVAC, a town south-west of Zagreb, there were almost 9,000 of them in one field last week - elderly men, women separated from their husbands and young children. They sat patiently on the grass in temperatures of more than 90F. All were refugees from the civil war across the Croatian border in Bosnia. They did not want to stay permanently in Croatia, nor did the Croatian government want to keep them.

But they would have risked their lives had they gone home. So about 5,000 were given refuge in Germany, while most of the others were housed with Croatian families in Karlovac and Zagreb.

In Croatia alone, if one excludes areas conquered by Serbs, there are almost 630,000 refugees, or almost one in seven of the population. More than half have fled the fighting that erupted in Bosnia last April; most of the rest are Croats displaced in last year's war between Serbia and Croatia. It costs Croatia about pounds 50m a month to feed and shelter the refugees - a heavy burden for a small republic that estimates the war damage to its economy at more than pounds 10bn.

Zagreb is overflowing with 150,000 refugees, who have been put up in schools, sports halls and any other available building. Hundreds of Bosnian Muslims head every week to the city's mosque, where the imam, Fahruddin Hamidovic, tries to find them accommodation. Some desperate Muslims commandeer empty train carriages. The mosque has a noticeboard where people pin messages asking for information about lost relatives.

Croatia said two weeks ago that it could accept no more refugees; any new arrivals would be shuttled straight to the Slovenian and Hungarian borders. In fact, about 14,000 Muslims are believed to have arrived in Croatia since then from the district of Bosanski Novi, where Serbian forces have been expelling Muslims from their homes in order to create ethnically pure Serbian regions.

Worse could be on the way. Jean-Claude Concolato, the head of the Zagreb office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said on Monday that the Serbian forces were threatening that an even more frightful fate could befall the Muslims if the UN refused to evacuate them from Bosnia. 'The expulsion from Bosanski Novi is a turning point. Either we put a stop to this practice at once, or the international community will have to accept another 400,000 Muslims from this region. It is an enormous crisis,' he said.

Much of Bosnia was once a jumble of Muslims, Serbs and Croats living in the same towns, streets and apartment blocks, but it will prove a Herculean task to recreate that ethnic balance.