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The carousel stops turning for a family trapped in war

In Bosanska Krupa, Emma Daly sees elderly Serbs rewarded for their fatalism
In a dilapidated apartment block, a peeling institutional green, windows broken and stairwells filled with grime, Bosnia's demographic merry-go-round has ground to a halt, at least for one small group.

The Bosnian fleur-de-lis flies over the ruins of Bosanska Krupa, a town divided until last week and half destroyed, its many Muslim houses burned by the Bosnian Serbs.

But as its inhabitants return to assess the damage to their homes, the few pathetic and elderly Serbs who remained have found their fatalism rewarded with unexpected mercy. "I was furious when I heard what had happened to the town, the terrible state it was in - I was born here," said Venira Trnicic, a young Muslim lawyer whose parents found their flat inhabited by three frail Serbs. "But when I saw them, my fury died. I can't blame them."

Her parents moved instead to an empty flat next door, leaving their home to Stoja Kubet, 61, a woman living on the verge of tears with her 74-year- old husband and another old man. "When they saw those poor people - how could you expel them? Three old people who can't move, who had nobody else?"

Mrs Kubet's new Muslim neighbour, Vasvija Pasalic, widowed and exiled from the next-door flat by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992, agreed. "The Trnicics didn't want to expel them, because there has been enough of that," she said. "The Chetniks threw us out of our apartment - I even left my false teeth, I had to leave in such a hurry. It was terrible." She returned to find her small flat bereft of anything she recognised (though her washing- machine was rescued from the fourth floor by helpful soldiers), but seemed to bear no grudge.

"Refugees from somewhere else must have been living here, but I think furniture was stolen the day after I left, not by the people who lived here. I think they were poor refugees who just moved in to an empty apartment," Mrs Pasalic said sadly during a visit to Mrs Kubet, whom she knew by sight before the war.

"It was a young married couple, Slavica and Velimir. They didn't have any children," Mrs Kubet explained, adding hurriedly: "We didn't speak much, just said `Good day'." She and her two companions declined offers to leave the town before it fell, perhaps because they felt too frail for the arduous journey to the unknown. Now she is visibly nervous, keen to emphasise her loyalty to the new army and her confidence that she would be well treated.

She seems, at least for the moment, to be on safer ground than some 100,000 Bosnian refugees in Croatia, who have been promised by the authorities in Zagreb that they will be expelled, against their will, to the newly captured territories .

In the town of Kljuc, south-west of Krupa and still only a few miles from the new front lines, buses from Croatia delivered around 300 Muslims "cleansed" a week earlier by Serbs from the town of Prnjavor. They are supposed now to move in to Serb homes vacated by those fleeing the fighting, without even a respite in Croatia. The UN fears Zagreb will next uproot those who have spent months or years in camps in Croatia and send them to the war zone.

"The Serbs could be back here within two hours," a UN official in Kljuc said angrily. Indeed, the Bosnian offensive to take Krupa, Kljuc and the rest of north- western Bosnia came with lightning speed.

Mrs Kubet said that during the fight for Krupa, "we were not that scared. We hoped that if the Muslims came they would not hurt us. We could hear cannons shooting and shells falling. I was terrified, not of our brother Muslims but of the shells. There are no shelters here, so we just stayed here and waited for whatever God would send us."

So far destiny, or that part apportioned by the Bosnian V Corps, has been kind. "[The soldiers] were very good to us. they saw how ill my husband is and they brought us a box," she said, flourishing a small cardboard box with tins of sardines, pasta, flour and toothpaste - the usual mix of humanitarian aid.

"At first nobody came to our door - the streets were deserted," Mrs Kubet said. "I thought, when they come to the door I will beg them not to hurt us. I know they must feel upset when they see what the Serbs did to their houses - they should not have burnt them, it's senseless." Once the situation had calmed a little, she went out to fetch water and saw Bosnian Army posters - "V Corps - The Heavenly Force", "BiH Army - The Key to Freedom". "When I saw that I was happy, because it's our army in the end - this is Bosnia," she said.

Mrs Kubet only moved to the Trnicic flat after drunk Serb soldiers burnt her house down early in the war, she said, so perhaps she believes her own words. "We were living like brothers and when this happened, it was like Hell," she said. "I'm old, and I would like to die here."