Serbs press-gang refugees into front line

Robert Block in Belgrade reports that forced conscription is so ruthless, some `troops' wear only pyjamas
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The Independent Online
A group of 30 women dressed in black, the representatives of Serbia's tiny peace movement, gathered yesterday at the Square of the Republic in central Belgrade as they have done every Wednesday for the last three and half years, to protest against the war in Bosnia and Croatia.

Yesterday, however, the focus of the demonstration was not against the fighting itself, but against a practice the women deemed equally barbaric: the forced conscription of their sons, brothers and husbands to fight Muslims and Croats. "Mobilisation is a crime against humanity," read one of the placards held up by the group.

In recent weeks, the Serbian authorities have rounded up an estimated 4,000 Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, most of them refugees, and sent them to the front lines against their will. "This act is an infringement of all human rights granted to refugees and all international conventions on refugee rights," said a pamphlet signed by the anti-war group Women in Black, which organised the protest.

One of the protesters, a Montenegrin woman named Andja, recounted how her 52-year-old Bosnian-born husband, an architect who designed some venues for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, was dragged by police from his car in central Belgrade two weeks ago and taken to a Serbian army garrison.

"He telephoned me and begged me to do something. I said, `Just show them that you are a citizen of Montenegro by marriage'. He told me: `They don't want to listen. I was born in Bosnia and that's enough for them. Help me'." Andja rushed to the garrison, but could only watch as they put her husband on a bus bound for Serb-held areas of Sarajevo.

Press reports and information from relief workers in Serb-held parts of Bosnia paint a grim picture of life on the front lines for the conscripts. Belgrade's English-language newsletter VIP reported yesterday that some conscripts have been sent to the trenches dressed only in the pyjamas or boxer shorts they were wearing when arrested. "They promised to issue us clothing and to give us some sort of training, but nothing came of either promise," one was quoted as saying.

The report added that at least two conscripts killed themselves with the rifles they were given to fight Muslims. It said another was involved in an accident with a hand grenade in a trench, injuring two Bosnian Serb army veterans.

"After that incident, the regular troops refused to fight alongside the newcomers, so that the army formed special units made up exclusively of repatriated refugees," VIP said.

There have also been reports of Bosnian Serb police beating "deserters" - the term used to describe forcibly repatriated conscripts - upon their return to Bosnia. According to one reliable independent source, at least two men near the border town of Bijeljina died as a result of the beatings.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has protested to the rump Yugoslav government over the round-up, which it said violated international law. The authorities claimed police were only arresting criminals and foreigners whose papers were not in order.

n New York (Reuter) - The UN Security Council yesterday renewed for another 75 days the easing of some of the sanctions it imposed on rump Yugoslavia in 1992, following its support for Bosnian Serbs fighting the Muslim-led Sarajevo government.

By a vote of 14-0, with only Russia abstaining, the Security Council extended until 18 September a relaxation of curbs on travel and on cultural and sporting ties.