Refugees board a nightmare train: Adrian Bridge spoke to Muslims 'cleansed' from their village in Bosnia by the Serbs and forced to make a terrible journey to Hungary's Nagyatad camp
Sunday 19 July 1992
It was late June, and although her village had already fallen to Serbian guerrillas, sporadic gunfire aimed at Bosnian resistance fighters in the nearby woods continued to generate a constant sense of panic.
When the order finally came to leave, Merima, together with all her family and friends, had only one hour to prepare her things. It was the start of a seven-day journey that rapidly turned into a nightmare. With only the clothes they were wearing and the barest of provisions, the Kozluk villagers spent most of the next week packed like cattle, 100 to a carriage, in trains that shunted them first to the Serbian-Hungarian border where they were issued with new 'Yugoslav' passports and then on to the Hungarian- Austrian border, where half of the party was refused entry.
During the worst part of their ordeal, the villagers, who included 150 mothers with babies or young children and several people over 80, were cooped up in their train carriages for three days in a railway siding while Serbian officials prepared their exit documents.
Uncertain of where they were heading and whether any country would eventually accept them, the only food and water the refugees received during this period came from Red Cross officials and a handful of sympathetic locals who took pity on them.
For older people on board, many of whom were travelling abroad for the first time, the consistently high temperatures and lack of proper hygiene facilities proved too much. Many became seriously ill. For others, the psychological traumas of being uprooted without knowing their eventual destination took the heaviest toll.
Merima, however, faced the additional problem of being nine months pregnant. And it was while the train was on the move between the Austrian-Hungarian border and its final resting place, the Nagyatad refugee camp in southern Hungary, that she gave birth to her second child, Adel.
'When I realised that my labour pains had started, I was horrified,' Merima said. 'There were 20 people in my carriage and I begged someone to stop the train so that I could have my baby properly - somewhere on land. 'I was persuaded that everything would be all right and that it would be too complicated to try and arrange anything else. My mother delivered my son. Thanks to God, labour only lasted about three hours and the birth was relatively easy.'
At Nagyatad, Hungary's biggest refugee camp, Merima was sent straight to hospital and given the medical attention she had been deprived of during the whole of the previous week. But, along with all her colleagues, she is bitter about having been forced to leave her home and vows that, one day, she will return.
'None of us chose to come here voluntarily and none of us wants to stay,' said Fadil Banjanovic, the chief representative of the Bosnian Muslims from Kozluk in the Nagyatad camp. 'The men will return with guns to fight and, when the time is right, we will come back to fetch our women and children.'
As the chief co-ordinator of the exile from Kozluk, it was Mr Banjanovic who told the villagers on 25 June that they had only one hour to get ready to leave. 'We faced only two options: to flee or to stay and be killed.' Kozluk is one of the many villages and towns along the Drina river in Bosnia that falls within the stretch of land the Serbian fighters are trying to 'cleanse' of their predominantly Muslim population and to resettle with Serbs.
A convoy of 17 buses, three trucks and two cars came to collect the nearly 2,000 Kozluk villagers at about midday on 25 June and transport them to the Serbian town of Sabac. There, after negotiations with the local authorities, they were transferred on to a train bound for Subotica on the Hungarian border and, they hoped, to freedom. Stones and insults were hurled at the refugees in the 18- carriage train as it slowly pulled out of Sabac. But that was nothing compared with the ordeal awaiting them in Subotica.
'When we got there, it was clear nothing had been prepared to facilitate a quick transfer across the border and we were shunted on to a railway siding outside the town and left, literally, to stew for three days,' said Mr Banjanovic. 'A feeling of panic set in. In addition to the (stories of) atrocities, we had heard that the Serbs had set up special concentration camps for ethnic minorities and were terrified that we were going to be sent to one.'
'On reflection, I would have preferred to have stayed and died fighting rather than going through all that,' said Ramiz Pekmezovic, another of the Kozluk villagers. 'We felt our lives were in danger the whole time and, above all, we felt totally defenceless.'
On 30 June the reason for the delay became apparent when passports of the new 'small' Yugoslav republic were produced for each member of the party. The documents omitted any reference to Bosnia-Herzegovina, describing Serbia as the republic of origin. 'Effectively we have been given passports of a country to which we did not belong and against which we were waging war,' said Mr Pekmezovic. 'The whole thing was a farce, but we needed them in order to get out.'
Roughly half of the party was despatched to Austria the next day and entered just before Vienna imposed visa restrictions on all refugees. One day later - on 2 July - the second half of the convoy was not so lucky, and was turned back at the Austrian border because they did not have the necessary visas or documents proving that they were coming directly from a war zone.
'For many of us it seemed like the last straw,' said Hadzic Hasan, another member of the convoy. 'A rumour quickly spread that we would be returned to Serbia, and we decided we would all pull the emergency cord together and jump out of the train rather than face that.'
As it turned out, such fears were unfounded. Although Hungary had said it would not take any victims of Serbia's 'ethnic cleansing' programme, it decided to accept the Kozluk villagers on humanitarian grounds. Twelve hours after being turned away by the Austrians - and one baby later - some 1,000 shattered Bosnian Muslims were welcomed to the relative sanctuary of the former Hungarian army camp used for refugees in Nagyatad. 'Words cannot express our gratitude to the Hungarians,' said Mr Hasan.
'After so many bad experiences in Serbia and throughout the journey, it was an incredible relief to experience once again some simple human decency.'
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