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Ethnic cleansing is 'spruced up'


ZAGREB, Croatia -- From its horrific beginnings in the form of death camps and rape hotels, "ethnic cleansing" in the former Yugoslavia is evolving into a more subtle but still coldly efficient tactic, according to United Nations observers and recent victims.

The result remains the same: a gradual, massive realignment of population along ethnic lines, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, practiced without regard for either peace plans or international outrage. And violence, or the threat of violence, is still often involved.

The new methods include these two examples:

* A Serbian family living in a Muslim-controlled town feels vulnerable and harassed, and wants out. Miles away in another city, a Muslim family has grown equally uncomfortable living among Serbs. The families seek the help of local "relocation committees," and a swap of homes is arranged.

* In the Serbian-controlled city of Banja Luka, a Muslim man is fired from his job. No one will hire him. He is not allowed to shop at the market. He is threatened with violence. Local authorities offer him a way out -- an expensive ticket on a bus to Muslim territory. But he must leave behind everything in his house. He accepts the offer, along with 280 others. The authorities notify the United Nations that a load of "economic refugees" is coming.

In these ways and others, the armies and beleaguered peoples of Bosnia have taken matters of "safe zones" and new boundaries into their hands while the world diplomatic community gropes for a peace settlement that will satisfy warring Serbs, Muslims and Croats.

"I think several systems of population exchange have grown up," said Karen Landgrem, chief of mission for the U.N. High Commission on Refugees in Bosnia. "There are committees here springing up, some official and some not, under which minorities are exchanged, or exchange themselves. There are also barter deals being done at the semi-official level."

U.N. officials don't yet know how widespread these methods have become. "It's very hard for us to know because we're not present when it happens," Ms. Landgrem said. "We have been asked sometimes to transport these people, and we've refused, because it's purely an arrangement. We can't participate because it undermines the basis of the Vance-Owen [peace] plan, which protects minorities. But I think it's a growing trend, and it's very disturbing."

Not always benign

The new methods, even the supposedly voluntary ones, aren't always benign. "There is an edge to it," said another U.N. official. "It is still backed up by things that go bump in the night, certain attacks and continuous threats."

That's particularly true of the second example cited above -- ferrying people to different zones after they have asked to leave. They are usually motivated by fear.

Passengers among a recent load of 280 so-called economic refugees from Banja Luka, for example, told harrowing tales last week when they reached the safety of Travnik, a Muslim-controlled town.

"I owned a cafe-bar," said a Muslim man. "A Serb man has taken it and now he is running it. My daughter's hairdresser shop was blown up. That was a year ago. We were not able to move around the town. They would not let us go to any stores. They would call on the telephone and threaten us."

This man, like virtually all of the refugees interviewed that day, would not give his name, saying he feared reprisals against family and friends who are still in Banja Luka.

A woman said she decided to leave the city after "a man came to our house and put a knife under my neck. Three other men came with him and took whatever they wanted from my home."

Leaving costs money. The people on the buses to Travnik paid from $30 to $60 apiece for the 80-mile trip. At those prices, people often can't afford to take their whole families, especially after they've lost their jobs or their businesses.

In addition, no one is allowed to take along any possessions on these exit journeys. Such caravans are also sometimes levied special "taxes" along the way, officials said.

"There continues to be a systematic campaign to move people out of the Banja Luka area," Ms. Landgrem said. But the trip out of Serbian-held territory has at least become safer than it used to be, she said.

"If you compare it to what was happening last September or October, it is a lot less crude," she said. "Earlier, once they got out of the bus they had to walk through mined front-line areas, and while they walked they were often shot at, just for fun. It was very bloody. What has evolved now is a sort of slick busing system."

When possible, today's arriving bus fleets are met at dangerous crossing points by U.N. military convoys, which then escort the refugees to safety. The United Nation's escort role continues to generate criticism.

"We get this [criticism] everywhere," said one exasperated U.N. official. "We truck them out with the full permission of their home government, which then turns around in the government media and accuses us of ethnic cleansing. We really just have to grin and bear it.

"We don't do it [the escorting] cheerfully, and we fully deplore the actions that are forcing people to leave. But what are we going to say: 'I'm sorry, but you can't leave this impossible and dangerous situation because that would be 'ethnic cleansing?' "

As brutal as ever

But for all the apparent attempts by the practitioners of ethnic cleansing to spruce up their methods, at times it is just as brutal and bloody as it ever was. The only difference in the violent outbursts now is that they're usually on a smaller scale, so they tend to draw less attention.

Such was the case last month in the Muslim village of Ahmici, near Vitez. The U.N. Human Rights Commission investigated the April 16 attack on the town and, in a report released last week, described a ruthless operation that began with a dawn mortar barrage.

Because of the mortar fire, the report says, many people in the village "ran southward to an open field where Croatian militia forces were waiting. At least 20 fleeing civilians were ambushed in the field and shot. . . . "

Soldiers then walked into the village "in groups of five or more, from house to house, shooting and throwing grenades. . . . Of the 89 bodies which have been recovered from the village, most are those of elderly people, women, children and infants."

The attack's effect on the ethnic makeup of the village couldn't have been clearer. "All the approximately 180 Muslim homes were effectively destroyed," the report says. "There are now no Muslims in the village. The 15 or so Croat homes in Ahmici were left untouched in the attack and some of the Croat villagers remain."

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