COLUMN ONE : Bosnia: Hell of WWII Is Relived : Few survivors of the last war think they will escape again. The world's inaction has stolen what helped sustain them before--hope.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even when she was just a number with a daily allotment of 3 1/2 ounces of bread, Greta Ferusic had something at the notorious Auschwitz death camp that is painfully lacking in her life today.

Half a century ago, shorn of her hair, name and dignity and destined for the ovens that had consumed her parents, the emaciated 20-year-old nurtured her frail body and imperiled soul on the precious stuff of survival called hope.

"We knew the Americans would come one day, that they would win in the end," the Holocaust survivor recalls of the last days of the last war, the fierce determination that propelled her through the earlier hell still burning in her hazel eyes. "We didn't know how long it would be, but we knew liberation would come. Now, we don't know anything."

In one of the more bitter ironies of a life already stunted by horror and humiliation, Ferusic, now 70, plods through fresh indignities each day in what fellow Jews and Sarajevans describe as the world's biggest concentration camp.

They freeze through this third winter of siege because the gunmen surrounding them siphon off their natural gas supply, block shipments of firewood and cut electricity relay lines.

They go hungry even when humanitarian deliveries manage to overcome the harassment and obstacles routinely placed in their path, because deprivation has spawned corruption, allowing most of the aid to be hijacked for the army or sold for extortionate amounts of hard currency that few Sarajevans have.

They are idle because there is no work in a capital cordoned off from the rest of the country and all but forgotten by the rest of the world.

Lives like Ferusic's--which, until three years ago, were enriched by diversity, culture and international travel--have deteriorated into daily struggles to gather enough food, fuel and water to survive.

"I don't write to my son anymore. What would I tell him? That we have water today? That we are promised electricity tomorrow? These are the themes of our lives now," Ferusic, a retired architectural professor, says mockingly of her new world, the one no longer connected to her son and grandsons living in Spain. "Once again, we have been diminished."

Jakob Finci, head of the Sarajevo Jewish community that has been whittled by death and exodus from more than 1,200 before the current war to fewer than 600 people, was born in 1943 in a concentration camp on the Adriatic island of Rab, 10 days after its liberation from Italian Fascists.

His parents returned to Sarajevo, raising their son in the peace and prosperity that were a velvet glove over the iron-fisted rule of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the wartime partisan who made the former Yugoslav federation the envy of the Communist world for four decades.

"I'm lucky that they died before this war," Finci says. "It would have been impossible for them to survive. More than 50 members of our family perished in the last war. They would not have been able to bear seeing such things happen again."

In a voice becalmed by resignation, Finci says that Western democracies missed their chance to promote a genuine new world order after the collapse of communism and that the outside world bungled the breakup of the former Yugoslav republics and left Bosnia-Herzegovina on its collision course with annihilation.

He blames Western Europe for lacking the courage to punish aggressive nationalism before it spread through the Balkans like a virus. He accuses Washington of criminal negligence in refusing to raise a higher moral voice.

"In 1941, the world was silent about the Holocaust, but eventually everyone realized evil has to be fought," Finci recalls. "We Jews don't have the right to be silent when the Muslims are in trouble. This is not a Holocaust, but it is genocide, and that is terrible enough."

Finci fears that Serbian extremists have been left to kill, rape and plunder with impunity because major Western powers have decided this bloodletting poses no risk to their own security.

And politicians at the highest levels have suggested that there is nothing that can be done to ease Sarajevans' suffering, leaving war victims feeling betrayed by the democratic powers they once envied and respected.

"It's the Balkans," British Defense Minister Malcolm Rifkind said in explaining the hopelessness of the crisis during a recent gathering of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "We don't want another Vietnam," U.S. Defense Secretary William J. Perry concurred a few weeks later.

Sarajevans fear that the savagery of the conflict has bestowed validity on a Western belief--some call it a prejudice--that nothing can be done for Bosnia because it is part of a region prone to violence, that people here are born with some irrepressible compulsion to fight.

Those who are old enough to recall the roots of the last war and savvy about the politically inspired causes of today's violence dispute that judgment with all the emotion they can summon in this bleak hour.

"Those are just excuses by people who don't want to do anything," says Dragica Cica, an 85-year-old Serb whose memory spans both world wars and the days when Bosnia sat astride the borders of the Ottoman Turkish and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Spry and good-humored, despite the siege by ethnic brethren that has kept her housebound, Cica jokes that she never had the urge to travel because other countries always came to her.

She judges her life as a pleasant one, wars and hardships aside, and laughs at memories of suffering that pale beside today's conflict.

"I was just a girl during the First World War. I only remember there was hardly ever any sugar," she says, confessing she once hid a small sackful inside an old clothes hamper as her private stock.

World War II was spent caring for her only son, helping six brothers and sisters tend a small farm to make ends meet and steering clear of the German occupiers who ruled this city.

"This war is the worst, because it is our own people shooting at us," Cica concludes, her smile suddenly fading. "Before, we were attacked by someone. But this war should never have happened."

Like many Bosnians who lived through the last war, Cica clings defiantly to the belief that the people of the Balkans will learn again how to live together, that the absence of alternatives will compel today's sworn enemies to resume being neighbors, even friends.

"The fascists used to bury people alive in caverns. We could hear them crying for water as they died," the old woman says of the World War II killing of Serbs by Nazis and their Croatian collaborators. "We got over that and built a good life together in Yugoslavia. What is to say we couldn't do it again?"

Of greater concern to Cica and other elderly Sarajevans is the abysmal lack of hope of escaping the vicious circle of aggression and retaliation.

"No one knows how this war will end. It may go on forever if the civilized world doesn't stop it," warns Hasan Ferhatbegovic, a 70-year-old retired barber who lives in a hillside bungalow so cold that its corners are laced with ice. "The only thing I'm sure of is that I won't be alive when it's over."

World War II survivors almost unanimously agree that conditions for civilians this time are far worse, with the obvious exception of the horrors endured by deported Jews.

But the randomness of the violence and the fact that it comes from within inflict the most pain on those who survived the last war and rebuilt their lives with the conviction that nothing as horrible as fascist terror would confront them again.

"If you talk to old people like me who have been through two or three wars here, you will not find one person who wanted this to happen," says Dervis Hamzic, an 84-year-old retired maintenance worker who spent all four years of World War II in Tito's army fighting for liberation. "There is a sickness afflicting some people here, and to get rid of sickness you must have medicine. But no one is willing to help us with this."

What Sarajevans see as Western indifference to, even betrayal of, their commitment to a multiethnic society has undermined that spirit of tolerance and robbed survivors of their last shreds of hope.

"I'm embarrassed when I hear that a neighbor who lived here with me for years left to go to the other side, that he is now fighting against this place where he used to get his pension, where he left his kids. That's what hurts me," Hamzic says dejectedly, ticking off the names of Bosnian Serb residents of his apartment house who have given up and left.

Life for those who lack the option of taking refuge with the smugly victorious "other side" is consumed by the quest for food and belittled by the indignity of dependence. Despite years of relying on the international community to feed them, once-prosperous Sarajevans still feel shame in accepting charity.

"My wife made rice for lunch today, and tonight we will each have a piece of bread. Today is taken care of, but what will we eat tomorrow?" Hamzic asks.

Across this city, and in the other besieged pockets of Bosnian society less visible to the outside world, tales of humiliated and dispirited elderly abound.

"I always thought I would have a beautiful end to my life," says a wistful Ferusic, the Holocaust survivor, gripping her cardigan a little closer around her spare frame. "I worked hard, so I had a good pension. We have this well-appointed apartment and a summer house at the sea."

But war has razed Bosnia's economy as well as much of its housing and industry, reducing her retirement income to virtually worthless coupons good only for a daily loaf of bread.

The house at the sea, like the world she once traveled, lies on the wrong side of Bosnia's 1,000-mile front line.

Even much of her spacious Sarajevo apartment has been lost. With only a tiny gas burner to battle the subzero temperatures of winter, Ferusic and her husband have corralled their lives into the apartment's two smallest rooms.

Ferusic says she has come to see the Holocaust as a depraved chapter of human history that exposed her to unbearable suffering "because it was my private misfortune to be a Jew."

She grew up in Novi Sad, in the Serbian province of Vojvodina, which Hungarians occupied in World War II. In 1944, the Jews of Vojvodina were rounded up and deported--many, like Ferusic, directly to Auschwitz.

But by then, the rest of the world had learned of the Nazi extermination plans and reacted with horror, and even the condemned could draw sustenance from the knowledge that the human spirit was on their side.

"This is the third year (of war), and we don't see anyone with us, and we don't know what the world will do," Ferusic says, disbelieving. "Never in my life did I live like this."

Worldly-wise intellectuals like Ferusic, retired laborers like Hamzic and urbanized peasants like Cica share the same sense of injury and outrage that the democratic world has tuned out their plight. They say that they have lost hope, that only the naive still look westward for moral support, let alone rescue.

They speak with one voice in disparaging the current cease-fire as nothing more than a wintertime furlough for the warring factions to rest and reload.

They hold the same bleak expectation of dying before this war is over, of never again seeing the children and grandchildren who escaped Bosnia's conflagration when they could.

And they debate with themselves whether the world has a collective conscience, and if so, how many more lives will be extinguished in the Balkans before the illness of ethnic extremism is remedied with something stronger than words on paper.

More on Bosnia

* For a reprint of "Just What Went Wrong in Bosnia--Almost Everything," a special report by Times correspondents on how the world's noble intentions proved no match for an unforgiving region, call Times on Demand at 808-8463. Press *8630, select option 1 and item No. 6030.

Details on Times electronic services, A6

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°