A CAMP OF MOURNERS Having lost kin and their homes, Bosnian refugees live deep in grief THE WAR IN BOSNIA

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Mukelefa Husic's forced march down the time line of Bosnian misery has come to rest in a hot stubbly field of 6,000 refugees sheltering in low, white tents.

Like the others, she has just come through three years of shelling, expulsion and deprivation, uprooted first from one town and then from another in a conflict that has left 200,000 dead and wounded, and tens of thousands displaced.

In the past 12 days she watched Serbian soldiers stab to death her oldest son, take away her second son, and haul her husband off a refugee bus to points unknown.

Now, as she sits in the dirt with the only remaining member of her family, a 4-year-old son, she shuts her eyes tightly and breaks into a low moan that rises and falls in the rhythm of a holy lament.

"My husband, my sons," she chants over and over, swaying and rocking, while around her dozens of women stir with their own shakes and sobs.

They are a congregation of mourners. They have nowhere to go but their hot tents, nothing to think about but their missing sons and husbands, and nothing to listen to but the rumble of aid trucks, the wailing of infants and the drone of summer bugs.

Ms. Husic halts her eerie cadence. Then, in a calmer voice, she assesses the future of her 41-year-old life. "I will kill myself and my child," she says. "I cannot take this pressure any longer."

Ms. Husic's lament is a fitting anthem for Bosnia's 1.9 million Muslims.

With 42 percent of the nation's pre-war population -- the country's largest ethnic group -- the Muslims now hold less than a fifth of its land, a total reduced further during the past 12 days by the Serb capture of the eastern Bosnian towns of Srebrenica and Zepa, with encircled Gorazde standing next in line.

United Nations promises to protect those towns have proved to be empty. For the latest wave of refugees, it is now clear that neither the United Nations nor the politicians who scorn it will do anything soon to help them return to their homes. And, as they have found during the past several days, even their own leaders will sometimes manipulate their woes for political gain.

The tale of what has gone wrong for the Muslim people of Bosnia is easily traced in the life stories of the refugees gathered on this field of tents at the Tuzla air base. The camp itself is a sort of Bosnia in miniature -- a warren of the bereaved and homeless surrounded by razor wire and mines, fed and doctored by a gawking international community, and ever threatened by Serbian artillery.

One of the youngest people at the camp is Irina Suljic, born 24 days ago during the final weeks of the siege of Srebrenica. On a recent afternoon she squirms in the arms of her mother Suhra, who pours water from a tin can onto the baby's sunburned body in a pathetic attempt at a bath.

Ms. Suljic returns to the shade of the tent, sitting on the floor and putting the infant to her breast while placing a second child, a 1-year-old son, lengthwise on her outstretched legs, rocking him gently to sleep. He has a fever and a blotchy rash. So does her third child, a 3-year-old boy tugging at her sleeve.

Like practically everyone else in Srebrenica, Ms. Suljic listened eagerly to news reports during the past few years whenever world leaders vowed to do something about their predicament.

'The whole world is guilty'

They took heart as the European powers issued ultimatums to the Serbs. They despaired when no one backed the threats with action. They have wondered at the comments of people such as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who proclaimed that there were 20 ways to solve the Bosnian mess without using a single American soldier.

Even as they were being herded out of Srebrenica at gunpoint 12 days ago, some could hear radio reports of French President Jacques Chirac vowing to help to "restore the integrity of the Srebrenica zone."

"The whole world is guilty of what has happened," Ms. Suljic says.

They make the case for this verdict by recounting their experiences in the early days of the war. Three years ago, the Serbian attacks came fast and furious, and Muslims living in the outlying villages of eastern Bosnia streamed toward Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, towns where Muslim populations had long been in the majority, and where the United Nations set up aid operations.

What the Muslim soldiers needed most in those days were weapons to counter the tanks and heavy artillery the Serbs had taken from Yugoslav army depots. Instead the United Nations offered a proposition: give up their few guns and they could stay in the three eastern enclaves forever. The United Nations would send troops to guarantee their protection.

"I believed them," Ms. Suljic says. "When UNPROFOR [the U.N. Protection Force] came to Srebrenica, I was thinking that the war was over."

Merima Garovic, who along with her 1-year-old son shares the tent with Ms. Suljic, says, "My husband didn't have his gun because they took it. They took our arms and said they would protect the people."

In 1993, in the second year of the war, when her husband began serving on the battlefront a few miles from their front door, he did so by carrying messages and performing other tasks that didn't require weapons. Even as the fighting grew desperate there never were enough guns for him to get one.

For Ms. Husic, Srebrenica wasn't home, but once she was forced out of her house in a nearby rural village, she says, "I had no place else to go."

Shaky promises, little food

Her family settled into a house with her cousins in 1992, and for a while it seemed life might return to normal. But before long the surrounding Serbian armies began to tighten their grip. The United Nations' promise began to look shaky. Food was in short supply, and the few aid convoys that arrived were picked through first at Serbian checkpoints. Residents became so desperate that fights broke out at the arrival of every food shipment.

"We had to sell my shoes to feed our children," Ms. Husic says. Now she wears only a pair of bath slippers. "Sometimes you could get a kilo of salt or of sugar, but there was never enough."

Indeed, one irony of life in the Tuzla camp was that, for all its miseries, many refugees said they were eating better there than they had in months.

Three weeks ago, the Serbian attacks on the city intensified once again, and as the final assault began it was clear that the 400 U.N. soldiers supposed to guarantee protection could do nothing but share in the misery of Srebrenica.

It was apparent for the many refugees in the city's population that it would soon be time to flee again.

From past experience, they knew what to expect if the Serbs overran the town. All men from 16 to 60 would be rounded up and, in many cases, jailed or sent to separate camps. Many would never be seen again. So, the men of Srebrenica began filtering through the front lines at night, heading for the wooded hills that led west to Muslim-held territory. Among the combatants in this trek was Ms. Suljic's husband.

Finally, 12 days ago the Serbian assault moved into the center of town. The gunfire stopped. The city was lost.

On the first day, Ms. Husic and others say, the Serbs behaved well, distributing bread and water. On the second day they began to drink, usually plum brandy or vodka. Then they began rounding up Muslim families for removal. There was no question of staying.

Some families were taken straight from their homes. Others were marched to a local factory for consolidation and "selection." Thousands more walked to a nearby village where the U.N. troops were based, although they were surrounded by Serbian soldiers.

Ms. Suljic was among the latter group, walking a full day less than two weeks after giving birth. She held her newborn in her arms and balanced her 1-year-old on her shoulders. Her 3-year-old walked at her side.

Before Ms. Husic's family could leave, it received two visits from soldiers. During the first, the Serbs took away her 15-year-old son, Ahmedin, she says. They said he was under arrest.

Later they came for her 20-year-old son, Esmir, and this time she snapped.

"I was running after them, begging them to let him go, but they were holding me back," she says. "Then they stopped and drew a knife across his neck, and stabbed him in the heart. There was blood everywhere, blood everywhere. He died in my arms."

The next day she and her husband, Enes, left with their 4-year-old son for the U.N. base. They arrived to find a fleet of buses, with Serbian soldiers supervising the boarding. "Then they separated us. They took my husband off the bus. I have not seen him since. I cannot find out anything about him."

The Bosnian government estimates that about 8,000 men are still unaccounted for in the exodus of 42,000 Muslims from Srebrenica. Many are believed to still be held, but Red Cross officials have been denied a visit to check on their conditions.

Of the 15,000 men who tried to escape through the hills, many are believed dead.

Fernando del Mundo, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, spent a day interviewing some who made it to Tuzla. "Many of them were slaughtered along the way," he says. "They came through heavy shelling, they walked through minefields, and there were ambushes. . . . We talked to one soldier who had left with a group of 72 soldiers, and when he got here he saw only two of them."

Serbs in U.N. uniforms?

Another soldier told them an account, still unverified, of Serbian soldiers dressed in U.N. uniforms and driving U.N. vehicles, announcing on a bullhorn for the men to come out of the woods, that they would be safe. This soldier said he watched from the trees as the Serbs then lined up a group of surrendered men and raked them with gunfire.

Sevala Hasic, a 20-year-old woman in the refugee camp, says she saw Serbian soldiers in U.N. uniforms and blue helmets the day after the city fell.

Another spokesman for the U.N. refugee commission, Steven Corliss, says, "The Bosnian Serbs are saying these incidents didn't happen. All we know is that they are unconfirmed. But until the Bosnian Serbs let us into the town, then I don't think they're entitled to the benefit of the doubt."

Convoy of confusion

Those who made it to Tuzla either on foot or by bus found a huge relief operation waiting for them. But for the first few days the effort was plagued by disorganization, and from the beginning the Bosnian government has been less than cooperative with efforts to help its own people, aid workers and U.N. officials say.

The snafu began with the choice of Tuzla as the receiving point. The population of Tuzla and the surrounding area has swelled from 131,000 to nearly half a million during the war, and nearly all the growth has come from refugees. The United Nations currently feeds about 440,000 people a day in the area, with housing and many services stretched to the breaking point.

But this was where the Bosnian government was determined the Srebrenica refugees would go, U.N. officials say, because Tuzla is the head quarters for the U.N. sector that had been responsible for protecting Srebrenica.

It was a logic of spite: If this sector had failed the city, then this sector would bear the brunt of its refugees, whether practical or not.

The government's interference continued through late last week. Thursday a British aid convoy of 64 trucks bound for Tuzla was halted overnight by a government checkpoint more than eight hours short of their destination. The excuse? The convoy's paperwork was not in order.

"We find it very frustrating," says Maj. Betty Dawson, spokeswoman for British Brig. Gen. Andrew Pringle. "We are not allowed to proceed by the very authority for the people we are trying to help."

The halting of the convoy was particularly nettlesome because it carried the equipment that would be used to help relocate many of the people from the tent camp. Aid workers fretted all week that the camp would be shelled, because the former Yugoslavian military air field has often been a target of Serbian shelling in the past. And not only would the tents offer no protection from shrapnel, but panicked crowds would be forced into the surrounding razor wire and mines.

As if to underscore the danger, a Serbian shell wooshed into downtown Tuzla on Tuesday evening, killing two civilians.

But within the camp the greatest preoccupation has been the fate of the missing men. Each day, hundreds of women line up outside a Red Cross tent to fill out forms for tracing relatives, and to ask if there is any new word on their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers.

Ms. Garovic, Ms. Suljic's tentmate, says she last saw her husband two weeks ago. He, too, was a soldier without a gun. "He told me he would come and find me if he survives, but I haven't heard from him."

A few moments earlier, as two men had walked by the tent, Ms. Garovic recognized them from her old village where she and her husband had lived before being forced into Srebrenica. She leaped to her feet, her face brightening. She ran to them, questioning them rapidly, but they shook their heads slowly.

"They said they did not know anything about him or where he might be," she says. "I have heard several stories about him. Some people say that he has been killed. Some say he is in Tuzla."

She begins crying, the eventual result of almost any lengthy conversation in the tent city.

In the past several days some of the men who made it over the hills have trickled into the airport camp to look for their families. Gaunt and barefoot, they have literally walked the shoes off their feet.

But even the families that have managed to re-unite or stay together know little of what their future will be like. Those staying in Tuzla will be swallowed in the sea of war refugees. The city is overcrowded, with almost every one of its green spaces now filled with rows of corn, tomatoes or melons, while goats and cows herded from outlying battle zones now graze alongside city sidewalks.

Like Srebrenica and Zepa, Tuzla also is a U.N. "safe area," although it is not surrounded by Serbian forces. But to the new arrivals, the U.N. designation is like a label of guaranteed doom.

"There is no hope," concludes Mashic Habiba, 39, who is still waiting to learn the fate of her husband and a teen-age son. "We are really suffering here. But we cannot even comfort each other."

The greatest challenge for the survivors, however, may be in explaining all of this someday to their children. Already Ms. Suljic is at a loss when 3-year-old Hamir asks when they will return home.

"He cries and says he wants to go home," she says, "and I have to calm him and explain that we don't have our home anymore." As she completes the sentence she lowers her head with a sob. Hamir tugs at her sleeve, gazing in puzzlement at her tears.

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