Refugees resigned to life in exile

'WHEN THE SERBS broke through they burned our houses, stole our cattle, raped our women. I saw everything,' says Rahima, a 46-year-old housewife who looks 20 years older.

She was at home in Kozarac, a village near Prijedor, when the Bosnian Serb army swept in. Now she lives in the high school in Travnik, a dilapidated building housing hundreds of refugees, where she shares one room with eight relatives and several other Bosnians.

Tomorrow two parliaments - the Bosnian Federation in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serbs in Pale - meet to answer the Geneva peace proposal. Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, said last night he expected the self-declared assembly to vote against the peace plan. But Rahima will not be going home, even if the warring factions make peace: on the new map of Bosnia drawn up by Russia and the Western powers, Prijedor, a town won by 'ethnic cleansing', is to remain Serbian.

'We have to jump over the moral bridge in the interests of a wider peace and of keeping Bosnia together,' said Charles Redman, the US special envoy to the former Yugoslavia.

Rahima, her family and her neighbours are on the wrong side of the 'bridge'. Their families are divided, their homes have been destroyed and their lives are shattered. Rahima and her daughter-in-law, Jasna, will not return to Prijedor if it belongs to the Serbs.

The women list without visible emotion the horrors they endured, though they will not give their real names. Rahima displays the shrapnel scars on the chest and right arm of her five-year-old granddaughter, Jasmina, who was wounded by a Bosnian shell in Vitez, where the family first sought refuge after their expulsion from Prijedor.

Jasna kneels to roll some pastry, and talks about the war: 'They came to loot stores and steal equipment. They also took away the better-looking girls. But I didn't suffer as much.'

Her father-in-law, Ahmed, is a large man with bushy eyebrows, a handsome moustache and expressive blue eyes. Before the war, he must have cut a fine figure. Now, he walks with a stick and, as he tells his story, he starts to tremble.

'I was sitting on a verge, taking a rest, when they came. I was severely beaten, especially around the head, so the details are still a bit misty,' he says. 'They kicked me with boots and blood came out of my mouth. They hit my legs, then made us walk towards two buses. They drove me to a prison camp in Prijedor and beat me with rifle butts and sticks. I still have black spots in front of my eyes.'

Ahmed is visibly agitated, but does not want to stop talking. 'They wanted to kill me in Kozarac. They stopped the bus, and told us to get into some trucks. But I had a bad back, and could not move.

'They said, 'If you can't move, we will kill you here.' But the other prisoners carried me. All the time I thought the Serbs would kill me. I was terrified.'

The Serbs kept him in the camp for eight months before releasing him, he said, pulling out a document which states baldly that Ahmed and his family are leaving the Prijedor area. One son, Jasna's husband, was released and sent to Canada, the other to New Zealand.

The third son returned to Prijedor, because his wife and child refused to leave while he was in prison. They send messages through the Red Cross to say they are all right.

Rahima was expelled from Serbian-held territory after spending one month and eight days at Trnopolje, another prison camp. 'We didn't think it would be so brutal,' she says. 'Even so, we thought we would get home.'

And now? 'I think peace is the best solution. If we can't go home, they must find something for us. We cannot stay in this building forever.'

'Will you ever go home?' Ahmed pauses, then looks to his wife for guidance or comfort. He cannot answer.

Eventually he says: 'I don't know how the situation will be. If it was like before the war, we would return. But I don't believe it will be.' His granddaughter is standing beside him, silent. Her T-shirt bears the logo 'Cyprus'. This is more likely to be their future.

(Photograph omitted)

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