Bosnian asylum tries to function as madness rages outside


VISEGRAD, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Trapped and virtually abandoned here, the inmates of an asylum for mentally retarded women cower in their living quarters while war rages around them.

They babble nonsense amid the unattended stench of the place. One gurgles like a baby in a corner. Two others, one tattooed and dressed only in a vest, fight with each other.

Most of the nurses have fled. Only 15 of 86 workers remain. That means just seven for each shift -- including cooks. Their function has become little more than damage control: preventing the more violent of the 309 inmates from attacking each other, forcing clothes on those who insist on wandering around naked.

Food is scarce. Tuberculosis is rampant. The shortage of medicines -- including anti-epilepsy drugs and sedatives -- has contributed to the deaths of four patients in the past month.

The Serbs have removed 61 inmates of Serb nationality to asylums in Serbia. The 309 who remain -- mostly Muslims and Croats, although also some Slovenes and Bosnian Serbs -- have been left to whatever fate awaits them.

There are fears that unless these helpless women and girls are evacuated quickly, they will join the unknown number of people who have died in Visegrad.

It's a town made famous by the 1961 Nobel laureate, novelist Ivo Andric, in his masterpiece, "Bridge on the Drina," which chronicles the precarious coexistence of Muslims and Serbs since the Turkish conquest of the Balkans. The action centers around Visegrad's 16th-century stone bridge, built by a Serb convert to Islam who became the sultan's grand vizier. He built the bridge as a gift to his home region but at enormous sacrifice in the lives of Serb serfs.

Now the book has played its part in setting off the Yugoslav breakup in this corner of Bosnia: Ethnic tensions between Muslims and Serbs began more than a year ago with the Muslims destroying a statue of Mr. Andric, whom they accused of deprecating them.

Since the Bosnian war began in April, Visegrad has remained one of the key battlefields. The Serbs rule the town, while the Muslims hold the surrounding hills.

The asylum is only a half-mile away from no-man's land, and at least some of the women are conscious of the danger they are in. "We're afraid at night because of the shooting, and we can't sleep," says one with neatly brushed hair and blue eye-shadow, carefully applied.

Several more come over and begin dancing around a visitor. "Don't abandon us," one says like a child. Almost in tears, one nurse who has stayed without pay -- Stoja Lugonja, 42 -- describes the strain of looking after her "children."

"I've been doing this for such a long time -- 21 years -- that I can't leave the children to themselves now. I have no other choice," she says.

But that involves leaving her real children, 11 and 16, at home alone all day in the middle of a war-torn town.

"I telephone home every half-hour or so to make sure my children are there. It's too dangerous in the streets. I come to work in a terrible state," she says.

"I'm most worried about the aggressive ones," she says. "I'm afraid they are going to hurt each other. And there are many who have to have everything done for them -- including taking them to the toilet. We can't cope."

Ethnic divisions do not seem to intrude inside the asylum walls. One group of less retarded women playing with teddy bears includes Raza Besic, a squat Sarajevo Muslim who thinks she is about 45. She protectively cradles the hand of her inseparable friend Nada Vasic: a 14-year-old Bosnian Serb. Nurse Lugonja is also a Serb.

But any ethnic harmony inside matters little in the ethnic madness that reigns outside. In that madness, the asylum has become a symbol of callousness and twisted propaganda.

The Serbs say they are not responsible for the inmates they did not take to safety. Technically speaking, that is true: The asylum used to be paid for by the Yugoslav federal government with proportionate contributions from the different republics for the inmates of their nationalities.

Those removed across the border to Serbia included only Serbs from Serbia and Montenegro -- the two republics that make up the new rump state of Yugoslavia. Serbia has refused to take the rest.

The authorities in Croatia have not replied to requests to remove their 47 nationals. Neither have the Slovenes claimed their two. Bosnia's authorities are in too great a state of disarray to arrange for the rest.

Sarajevo's Muslim-controlled radio has broadcast regular reports accusing the Serbs of using the women in the asylum for target practice and making them run through minefields. This has devastated the staff who have remained. They bring out the medical records of the four who have died, strenuously denying that any were mistreated.

But the real and propaganda salvos over the asylum are of little interest to the people working there.

"We don't have enough money," one said. "Nobody pays anything. The Red Cross has helped a little, but we live from day to day. The best thing would be to move them all to another place -- take them anywhere, just not here."

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