Wary Serbs caught in propaganda trap

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The Independent Online
Amid tears and curses, confusion and panic, thousands of Sarajevo Serbs, residents of five suburbs due to revert to government rule, yesterday begged for assistance to help them leave, or for international assurances that they could stay in their homes in safety.

In Vogosca, the first suburb due to fall under Bosnian police control at 6am tomorrow, residents struggled to make sense of a situation clouded by Serb propaganda and shrouded in fear. Women wept on the street as they said farewell to friends piling into a truck loaded with belongings, while a group of elderly people discussed the dangers of staying.

"We cannot wait - nobody is coming to help," said Mirko Simeunovic, 58, his rusty car piled high with possessions. "On the TV they say that when the Muslims come here they will start the killing."

Another man began to cry. "I have nowhere to go," said Danilo, who is 59. "I'm afraid to stay. If anyone could guarantee I would not go anywhere ... but they are telling us that the Muslims are arresting people in Sarajevo and killing people there." We agreed not to use his surname after another man tried to eavesdrop.

The Bosnian Serb propaganda machine in Pale has churned out all sorts of rumours designed to spread terror: one is that Nato forces will prevent Serbs from leaving their homes once the suburbs change hands. Several Serb women crowded into the international police station in Vogosca seeking assurances that they could remain. "If I stay, but decide to leave in six months, will I be able to go?" asked one anxiously.

The UN's International Police Task Force is trying to register the addresses of Serbs who wish to stay so that officers can check on their well-being. But Danilo said he was too frightened even to visit the foreign police in Vogosca because that would imply he wanted to stay and might bring reprisals.

A woman at the station said she would return today, because yesterday she was asked to register on a page filled with other names. "If I can see their names, someone else might see my name and talk," she said.

Their fears are well-founded: the UN police spokesman, Alex Ivanko, said local Serb officials who broke ranks with Pale and urged their constituents to stay had been threatened.

But Serbs are also rightly concerned about reprisals by their former enemies, who suffered more than three years of indiscriminate shelling and sniping, deliberate expulsions and the mass murder of civilians.

The fact that as many as 50,000 of the suburbs' inhabitants are still there, although they have moved their possessions out to safe places, indicates that many are still undecided, or unable to leave.

One group has received so many conflicting messages - of imminent mass slaughter from their own side, of security guarantees from the international community, somewhat grudgingly supported by the Bosnian government - that it doesn't know what to do. It presumably includes the few Serb policemen who have asked the UN whether they might join the Bosnian force.

The second group was promised aid by Pale, which announced on Monday that all Serbs should leave and that buses and trucks would be provided. The vehicles have yet to show, perhaps because of heavy snowfalls in the past two days.

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