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Bosnian town relives horrors Serbian rebels sack Sanski Most amid frenzied retreat

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SANSKI MOST, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- As Bosnian Serb troops hastily retreated 11 days ago from this one-time stronghold, witnesses say, they re-enacted in miniature the horrors of 1992, with a frenzy of ethnic roundups, executions, beatings and overcrowded detentions of Muslim and Croatian men.

In the end, according to local estimates, about 300 civilians were killed, while another 700 were hauled away to destinations unknown.

Survivors also describe a Serbian regime of forced labor during the past 3 1/2 years of military occupation, a loosely organized system in which every able-bodied Muslim and Croatian man was required to report daily, without salary, for chores in support of the Serbian war effort.

Such accusations of long-term forced labor have been repeated with striking similarity by men in other northwest Bosnian towns recently recaptured from the Serbs. If true, they would add yet another chapter to this war's lengthy chronicle of atrocities and crimes.

But even a few years of wood-chopping, truck-loading and crop-picking on behalf of the Serbian army seemed happily normal to Mato Matijevic, a 60-year-old Croat, compared with the dangerous chaos of the final weeks of occupation.

"When they realized that Sanski Most was about to fall, everything changed," Mr. Matijevic said. "They went crazy."

"In 15 days, they committed more atrocities against us than in all of the previous three years," said a Muslim man, 62, from a nearby street. "You know how it is when you corner a wild animal. It is more dangerous when they are wounded."

That man, like several others interviewed during the past week, refused to give his name, explaining his reluctance by pointing to the hills a few miles away, where the Serbs have dug their new positions, still lobbing an occasional shell toward the town.

'I am afraid'

"I am afraid," he said. "It would be bad for me if they ever returned."

Sanski Most, with a pre-war population of about 60,000 in the town and outlying villages, already was well-known to human rights investigators and aid workers. From the war's earliest months in the spring of 1992 its Muslim population (nearly half the town) and its Croats (about 7 percent) endured some of the worst treatment at the hands of the country's well-armed Serbian rebels.

It was in this region of northwest Bosnia that the Serbs first made their policy of "ethnic cleansing" evident, first by killing or rounding up for detention the Muslims and Croats known as political leaders and intellectuals, then by doing the same to other men simply because they were of the right age for military service. Along the way, thousands of Muslim and Croatian women were raped.

The history of this period is already well-documented in the thick reports by independent investigators.

Nearly forgotten since then have been the few thousand Muslims and Croats who stayed behind in the captured towns such as

Sanski Most.

Too old to be a threat

They didn't leave mostly because they were too scared, and the Serbs didn't evict them because they were too old to be a threat.

"They put their tanks on the road; we couldn't move," explained one elderly Muslim man. "And we couldn't resist because we had no weapons."

Not long after the occupying forces settled in, the forced work details began.

"It worked the way it would in peacetime at a factory," the man said, refusing even to give his first name out of fear of retaliation should the Serbs recapture the town. "You would report somewhere every day so they would know where you were. I was part of a group that went to the public works building. Others reported to the electric plant, the water plant, or the telephone building."

Lucija Licanin, 53, watched her husband stroll off every day to work for the local agricultural company, digging up potatoes, picking tomatoes or peppers, or doing other chores. "He worked for three years," she said bitterly. "He didn't even get one cigarette for it."

'We were not paid at all'

Mr. Matijevic said he was put in charge of one work group of Muslims and Croats, which, depending on its daily assignment, would number anywhere between 20 and 50.

"They would tell me what the group would do that day," he said. "Sometimes we loaded trucks; sometimes we were logging and chopping trees for their firewood. We were not paid at all, not even a match."

In the town of Kljuc, about 20 miles south of Sanski Most, and recaptured from the Serbs during the past several weeks, a 60-year-old Muslim who identified himself only as Hamid said, "We were like dogs to them. We were worthless. They made us work. Seven days before the town was liberated, I was in Kupres [a town to the south of Kljuc that was then on the front lines], still digging trenches for them. They were harassing us in the worst sort of ways."

Husein Kasic, a Muslim man in his 60s from Kulan Vakuf, a village about 35 miles southwest of Sanski Most, along the border with Croatia, said, "They used to beat me. They knocked out some of my teeth. They were making me work every day, going to Orasac [a village a few miles north] to pick up beans and plums, to dig up potatoes for them. When they destroyed our mosque, they forced us to clear the lot of the rubble."

Outnumbered from the start

The Serbian need for extra hands has been well established. Though far better armed from the beginning than their Muslim and Croat foes, they have been greatly outnumbered from the beginning. The problem was exacerbated by the need to defend many early gains along a lengthy front line. That left few hands free for trench-digging, or for gathering firewood and harvesting crops, two crucial items in a war effort in a land where there is little food and fuel.

rTC No one ever felt there was a choice about participating in the work details, especially after what they'd seen happen to other men who resisted earlier in the war.

"I have lost 11 children, so I didn't dare refuse," said Josip Kaurin, 41, a Croat in Sanski Most. He, too, said he was forced to work throughout the military occupation.

But in late September, the Serbs of Sanski Most began to feel the pressure of a joint offensive launched across western Bosnia by the mostly Muslim Bosnian army and its allies, the Bosnian Croat militia and the national army from neighboring Croatia.

Then one morning, without warning, the daily summons to work turned into a walk into detention.

A concentration camp

"They told us to come work for them that day at the concrete block factory," Mr. Matijevic said. "When we got there, they were actually leading us into a concentration camp."

The "camp" was two cinder block-walled garages, each about 12 by 15 feet. Mr. Matijevic, Mr. Kaurin and Mr. Licanin were among 55 men placed in one garage. A similar number were ordered into the other.

They were kept there for the next 15 days. They slept standing up or squatting, wedged against each other with no way to exit to relieve themselves. Each morning, they stumbled out for another full day of work and a single, small meal.

Their wives were allowed to visit them once each day.

Hundreds of other men in the town were herded into cramped confinement at a local ceramics factory, at a coal mine, and at two or three other buildings, witnesses said.

B6 All the while, the Bosnian army was moving closer.

Told to run fast

"Two days before they took us out of the camp," Mr. Matijevic said, "the guards told us they had orders to kill us all, but their commander said they didn't have the heart to do it. At the end, he told us to run as fast as we could. It is the only camp where everyone survived."

At the ceramics factory, the bodies of nine men were left behind, all of them shot to death. Ten more were found shot to death near the coal mine.

Meanwhile, Mr. Matijevic and others from the concrete block factory had joined hundreds of other townspeople who by then had fled to the woods. Those who stayed behind were in great danger. Serbs retreating in the face of Bosnian advances were in a fury, one man said, "shooting at anybody and anything. Old men, old women, it didn't matter."

"We were lucky to have remembered a place deep in the woods, seven or eight miles from here, where we went to hide," Mrs. Licanin said.

Mr. Matijevic said he spent two days and nights hiding in the trees, seeing and hearing soldiers nearby at times, but not knowing whether they were friend or foe. Finally, he borrowed the diaper from a young mother hiding with his group, which by then had grown to about 100 people. He tied it to a stick as a flag of surrender, and they made their way back to town. The Bosnian army had arrived.

By then, the streets were littered with the bodies of people and livestock, as well as with piles of items looted from Serbian homes by jubilant Bosnian soldiers.

Through Thursday afternoon, residents and soldiers had collected 67 bodies. Based on reports from other nearby villages, and also on the apparent existence of several mass graves, where bodies were dumped atop the remains of those killed in 1992, local officials expect 300 bodies will be recovered in all.

Of the 700 estimated to have been taken away, about 100 came from the men confined at the ceramics factory. Witnesses say they were loaded into two buses then drove toward the nearby Serbian-held town of Prijedor.

Clean-up under way

It is feared that those men will be killed, but Bosnian Army Maj. Drago Ilic said, "Those who were being used to dig trenches may have been moved to keep doing the same thing."

By late last week, those remaining in the town were beginning to clean up. Men were once again being organized into work details, this time by the Bosnian army, but this time with the men insisting they were glad to pitch in, sweeping up debris and collecting bodies.

With few items left to be looted, the soldiers have resumed military work, propping mortars in pumpkin patches and lining up howitzers at the edge of corn fields.

But the one officer, Husein Kovacevic, a native of Sanski Most who left in the spring of 1992, had to return to his civilian duties for a few days. At age 30, he is the town's chief imam, the ranking Islamic leader.

On Thursday afternoon, he watched as 10 more bodies, blackened and bloated from nearly a week in the streets, were loaded into wooden caskets at the parking lot of the concrete block factory. Four men wearing gas masks and rubber gloves did the job amid a swarm of flies, stacking the caskets onto tractor-drawn carts.

Mr. Kovacevic then donned the turban of an imam and draped a dark blue robe over his camouflage uniform before following the carts uphill to the town cemetery. The day before he had helped preside over the burial of 28 others.

Just before the Thursday services began, 22-year-old Alma Smailagic walked to the edge of the open graves, scanning the caskets for the scribbled name of her father, Mesud. She had learned only an hour earlier that he had been killed.

Prayers in Arabic

The imam began his prayers in Arabic -- the universal language of Islam -- while a light breeze blew the stench of rotting flesh toward Ms. Smailagic and a friend, the only mourners on hand, along with the gravediggers and a handful of soldiers.

A distant howitzer thumped twice, followed by a brief round of machine gun fire on a nearby hill. Then the bodies were lowered into the ground.

It is those hills the locals are now watching the most anxiously. The reason is simple.

"If the Bosnian Army were to retreat and the Serbs were to come back," said one of the men who was detained at the concrete block factory. "Then this time, I would leave. I could not live through something like that again."

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