'Mummy, the Serb says we must take our beds out now'

Robert Fisk reports on a new kind of ethnic cleansing, in his series from the former Yugoslavia one year after the ceasefire
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The Independent Online
Dubrava, Serb-controlled northern Bosnia - Fatima Mehicic was telling me that she feared for her home, when the door burst open and her illiterate son Rasim rushed into the room. "Mummy," he said. "The Serb says we must take our beds out of the attic now." Rasim swayed on his feet, hungry and cold, as frightened as his mother and sick father Fakhrodin. They had all seen the document from the Serb authorities, informing Savo Ponjevic that he and his Serb refugee family from Dorni Vakuf could have the "use" of Fatima's family home. This was ethnic cleansing post- Dayton style.

Fatima, her gaunt face framed by tired dark hair, wrung her hands in rage and anxiety, wiping away tears with her fingers. "I've no income of any kind - we only get food from the humanitarian organisations and my son and daughter can't go to school," she wept. "This house was my grandfather's and I grew up here. Now it is legally owned by my nephew who is in Germany. When the Serb family arrived as refugees, I welcomed them - I told them, 'I was a refugee too - I know how you feel'. I let them have the downstairs rooms and two of the four attic rooms. Then they told me they wanted me out of the house altogether. And now they say I can't even live in the outhouse."

A Muslim refugee herself, from the front lines at Derventa - her own house there was destroyed - Fatima moved to the old family home in Dubrava in 1992, aware that the Serb authorities were murdering and driving Muslims from their homes in northern Bosnia but declaring repeatedly that she accepted the idea of living in the "Serb Republic". Her fragile security remained intact until, just under a month ago, she heard that Savo Ponjevic had obtained a legal document to appropriate her home. "I went to the municipality and appealed to keep my house and they gave me a paper to let me do that," Fatima said. "Savo accused me of bribing the official for it. How could I bribe anyone? I don't have a dinar!"

Outside, a clutch of United Nations officials and international policemen arrived, observers under the Dayton accord who are doing their best to shame the Serbs into leaving the 2,000 surviving Muslims of Dubrava alone. It is true that the Serb authorities gave Fatima a letter saying she could stay in the outhouse. Much good did it do her. When I knocked on Savo's front door - the door of Fatima's family home - I was met by a proud, angry man whose voice, once we had sat down, grew so loud in fury that it vibrated on the coffee table in front of us. He immediately produced his own official Serb document which was as uncompromising as his own lack of pity for Fatima.

"I bought my home in Dorni Vakuf with my own money and the Muslims took it and it was better than this house," he shouted. "My wife and three children and I were forced to wander from town to town. I moved to this house because the owner was not here. The Muslim woman is a relative of the owner but I have been living here for a year now. That woman comes from Derventa. Let her go back there and rebuild her old home. If I could go back to my home in Dorni Vakuf, I would walk there barefoot." But Fatima's home in Derventa is destroyed, I said. "Then let her rebuild it," Savo boomed back. He was shaking with anger now, his eyes as grey as lead. Savo slammed the paper on to the table in front of me. Signed by a Serb official, it says that Fatima's home - lot number 713/1 - was now given to Savo's family "to use along with all the movable property which they find in the above stated residence". "The home I owned in Dorni Vakuf belongs now to a Muslim called Rachmanovic," Savo roared. "Now this house is mine. The war hasn't ended for me - my children have no future."

In the corner of the room, his son and two daughters, the elder a beautiful teenager with an innocent, smiling face, sat staring at their father. A kind of madness had seized Savo, and, despite everything, one could feel pity for him. An intrinsically middle-class, ordinary man, Savo had been driven by war to destroy his own generosity and, by extension, his own personality. Despite his remarks about his children, he has found places for them in local schools, unlike the woman he was evicting. And when I asked him if he could not be kind to Fatima, he turned on me like a wolf. "Why do you ask that?" he shouted. "What do you think I am? An animal? Give me back my home in Dorni Vakuf. It's not I who am divided from this woman. It is the Serb authorities who gave me the right to this house who are to blame. It is this piece of paper that is dividing us."

It was an extraordinary statement. Savo had lived under Communism for 35 years and now he still blamed the authorities for his very own act of appropriation. On the upstairs balcony of "his" home there now hung a Serb flag. Fatima was outside, talking to the UN men. "I was born here and I was brought up here," she cried. "I only went to Derventa because my husband was from there. I thought the war would only last for a month and then I'd go back home. I regret most of all that my children see all this - and they cannot even go to school."

Beside her, a Muslim neighbour was shaking his head. "You see that abandoned house over there?" he asked me, pointing to a bleak old building in an overgrown field. "This place was once a German settlement and a German built that in 1922. He was thrown out in 1945. Then others came and they were thrown out over the years. No one was ever happy there and no one will live there now. The Serbs in Fatima's house should remember an old Bosnian saying. 'That which was taken by force is cursed.'"

On Monday, Robert Fisk reports on a mass grave at Sanski Most.