Victorious Rebel Muslim Takes Followers Back to Their Bihac Home : Bosnia: The return of Fikret Abdic is a setback for the government. His supporters call him ‘Daddy.’


A week after renegade Muslim leader Fikret Abdic retook his headquarters in the Bosnian town of Velika Kladusa, a virtual wagon train of refugees headed home Friday under the rebel leader’s wing.

In tractors and trucks, buses and horse carts, about 6,000 Muslim refugees moved out of the no-man’s-land border between Croatian government and Serbian rebel forces, where they had been herded by Abdic four months ago.

The mass homecoming is a setback for the Bosnian government and a victory for Abdic, an ally of the Serbs who is one of the more unpredictable characters in the complex Balkans conflict.


By persuasion and force, Abdic had prevented the refugees from going back to Velika Kladusa as long as government troops held the town. But now, Abdic is in charge again with 4,000 to 5,000 of his own gunmen.

“Kladusa is free now. Our soldiers are there,” said Abdic supporter Umikulsuma Beha, an 18-year-old high school student preparing to leave Turanj, a suburb of Karlovac southwest of Zagreb. “Abdic brings us peace.”

Not exactly, but for years Abdic has at least brought bread and jobs to the people of Velika Kladusa, a town in the northern Bihac pocket.

Before the war, Babo, or Daddy, as Abdic followers call him, built the Agrokomerc poultry and food-processing empire, Communist Yugoslavia’s third-largest company with 13,000 employees--including someone from just about every family in Velika Kladusa and the Bihac area.

In 1987, Abdic went to jail for 18 months over a multimillion-dollar fraud deal involving Agrokomerc, but he emerged a still-popular figure who some say actually won the election for president of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990. Abdic gave way to fellow Muslim Alija Izetbegovic, however, and returned home to his mansion and power base in Velika Kladusa.

When war erupted in April, 1992, Abdic cut deals with anyone and everyone--Serbs, Croats, Muslims and the United Nations--to keep his area relatively peaceful and well-supplied. But Abdic began criticizing Izetbegovic as incompetent, and in September, 1993, he declared autonomy for his region.


The government responded with troops, launching a Muslim-against-Muslim conflict in the middle of its war with Bosnian Serbs.

In August, the Bosnian government claimed a great victory by driving Abdic out of Velika Kladusa and into exile. Officials had hoped that it would be the decisive battle that would end the internecine fighting.

That is when Abdic hustled about 30,000 followers into Turanj and another camp at Batnoga in the dangerous zone along the border with Croatia. Many boarded his buses voluntarily; others who hesitated were warned that Bosnian troops would cut their throats.

When the Bosnian government, U.N. officials and even the U.S. government promised the refugees safety in government-controlled Velika Kladusa, Abdic made sure they stayed put with persuasion, promises and thugs, according to dissidents in Turanj.

“He makes his point with fear,” one detractor said.

November’s Serbian attack on the U.N. “safe area” in Bihac provided Abdic with the chance to make a comeback. He joined forces with his enemy’s enemy--Croatian Serbs who are allied with Bosnian Serbs--and won Velika Kladusa back from Bosnia’s government.

Then, he accepted a proposal by the top U.N. commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, to respect a cease-fire brokered by former President Jimmy Carter between the Bosnian government and Bosnian Serbs. The truce freezes the front lines short of Abdic’s objectives but allows him to move his people back.


The Bihac region is an important road and railroad junction and has been a target for Serbs who would like to link Bosnian Serb-held territory with Croatian Serb-held territory in the eventual formation of a Greater Serbia. Abdic would be a useful ally for them.

Western diplomats and political analysts shake their heads in amazement at the mention of Abdic’s name.

“He has created a world of his own,” said a Western diplomatic source who asked not to be named. “Abdic is always available to the highest bidder. The Croatian Serbs have armed and reclothed his soldiers. The people are being used as pawns.”


Witting and unwitting pawns. The primitive camp at Turanj is so inhospitable that even a war-torn town could easily look better after four cold months. The refugees have been living in the chilly basements of houses left in ruins from Croatia’s 1991 civil war. The town was abandoned and mined; the people have no running water or electricity, no beds or bathrooms.

Refugee workers and military police say 6,000 people have left Turanj in the past two days in a caravan of Agrokomerc buses and trucks, with possibly hundreds of horses, carts and tractors.

“They call us extremists,” said Dzemila Durmic, 31. Fingering the barbed wire in front of her at the camp’s perimeter, she began to cry. “Before all of this, I had property, two horses, nine cows, a tractor. Sometimes you have everything, and then sometimes you don’t even have clothes to dress in.”


More on the Balkans

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