Muslims return to Sarajevo suburbs

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The Independent Online


Bosnian Muslims and Croats who were expelled from the suburbs of Sarajevo in 1992 ventured in to see what remained of their houses yesterday while the exodus of Serbs continued with the help of Serbian military vehicles.

The United Nations estimates that about half the Serb population has left, but the streets of Vogosca, more or less deserted in the last few days, have slowly returned to life since the arrival on Friday of Bosnian federal police, who are taking control of five suburbs in a phased hand- over.

The only pedestrians visible last week were older men and women, some unsure whether to stay under government rule, others too poor to leave without the help promised by the Serb leadership, which never materialised.

But yesterday a few young men played football, others fetched water or stopped to chat to policemen.

It was one of the rare occasions on which Muslims were easily distinguishable from Serbs, as the Muslims were smiling. "It's super, we've come back to visit relatives who stayed here throughout the war," said one young man in Vogosca, north of Sarajevo. "They're OK, everything's great."

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) believes about 30,000 Serbs have now left greater Sarajevo, just under half the estimated war-time population of 70,000. The Bosnian Serb leadership claims that 80 to 90 per cent have departed.

One Bosnian policeman said Serbs staying in Vogosca were frightened at first: "But then I said 'Hello', and suddenly they were asking if I could help them and bring them things.

"What struck me was how poor these people are. This is a place from the 19th century which, instead of moving forward to the 21st, has returned to the Middle Ages."

Muhamed Kozadra, the new Muslim mayor of Vogosca, who assumed office sooner than was planned - the civilian authorities were not due to move in until 19 March - has sought to stem the outward flow of material goods, if not of people. He said yesterday no vehicles would be allowed to remove possessions from Vogosca unless the family had registered. "Whatever is theirs they can take away, but whatever belongs to others must stay," he said.

The new regulations will increase concern among Serbs, many of whom have heard a rumour that they will not be allowed to leave the area after 19 March.

However, the mayor has a point. Many Serbs leaving the suburbs have removed everything from their homes, including kitchen sinks.

"Even the windows are gone," Bensad Heric said, looking at the home he was forced to leave in 1992. "But we'll put it back into shape."

In Ilijas, UNHCR officials saw some of those in the 20 Serb army trucks, which were sent in to the demilitarised suburbs with the approval of the Nato commander, Admiral Leighton Smith, looting official buildings.

"There were some military trucks loading up public property, such as furniture from the municipality building and chairs from the cinema," said Kris Janowski, a UNHCR spokesman.

He criticised Admiral Smith's decision to allow the Serb army to re-enter the area.

"There are some reasonable people there who want to stay. What makes us nervous about the trucking operation is that some people who are inclined to stay may see a truck pulling up in front of their house, and find it an offer they cannot refuse."