Anguish Over the Missing Keeps Deepening in Bosnia : Balkans: Returning refugees still don't know fates of fathers, brothers, sons. Cease-fire won't end their pain.


Mirsad Vajzovic said goodby to his family three years ago in a cramped schoolroom just off the main road here. He dug deep into his pockets and handed his wife his final possessions. He had a pair of fishing lures, the keys to the house and his wristwatch.

They spoke only a few words. The tears said the rest.

"We knew one of the guards, so the guard brought him into our classroom just to kiss the kids," says his wife, Atifa. "He told us not to worry. After that, we left the school on foot. He stayed and was in the window. I saw him watch us walk away."

Atifa Vajzovic and her two children hiked several miles to the next village, where they and hundreds of other Bosnian Muslims lived for six months as captives of the Bosnian Serbs. Their fate was determined by gender and age: That day, only women, children and elderly men left the school, which the Serbian rebels were using as a sorting center for their terrified Muslim neighbors-turned-enemies.

Vajzovic, a textile worker who was 37 at the time, has been missing ever since. In all, about 200 men, some as young as 16, who were held at the Orasac primary school and at a nearby river crossing have vanished. They account for nearly one-third of the missing people in the Bihac area of northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to the Bosnian government's missing-persons coordinator in Bihac.

The local men do not appear on rosters of captured, killed or wounded. The International Committee of the Red Cross cannot locate them, and the Bosnian Serbs have never offered them in prisoner exchanges, including one in 1993 that allowed many Muslims--among them Atifa Vajzovic and her children--to move to government-controlled Bihac, a U.N.-declared "safe area."

The horrible fear is that Mirsad Vajzovic and the others are dead, perhaps buried by a bulldozer in one of the mass graves suspected to have been dug by rebel Serbs in the woods and farmland they once controlled. The truth is only now beginning to be known as people from towns and villages recently recaptured by Bosnian government forces begin returning to rebuild their lives--and piece together the grim events of 1992.

As the world expresses outrage over the possible existence of such killing fields, the prospect brings nearly unbearable anguish to the thousands of Bosnians who have been separated from loved ones during 42 months of war.

"The hardest part is not knowing what happened," says Aida Vajzovic, 13, whose thick black hair and deep brown eyes are a carbon copy of her missing father's. "What happened to my father?"

The young girl tries to say more, but she bites her lip as her voice trembles and her eyes blur with tears. High on the kitchen wall, a photograph of her father hangs from a nail, his square jaw flickering in the candlelight, the only way to see after sundown in a town with war-wrecked utilities.

Aida still cries herself to sleep, sometimes clutching a family photo album. Her 16-year-old brother still wears his father's watch. Atifa Vajzovic still carried her husband's house keys until a month ago, when she finally relinquished them to a relative who began repairing war damage to the home.

"Aida was very fond of her father. She loved him almost too much," her mother says softly, her shoulders slumped over the kitchen table. "We are still hoping. If he is dead, I want to see the body. If he is alive, I want to see for myself."

There was one false alarm, when a truckload of bodies--42 in all, from Orasac and nearby Kulen Vakuf, where the Vajzovices lived--was handed over to the Bihac hospital by rebel Serbs. One of the body bags bore the name of Atifa Vajzovic's husband. She and her in-laws were called to confirm the identity of the remains within.

But the mangled corpse had gray hair and false teeth and was wearing a denim jacket. Her husband, known to friends as Blacky because of his hair color, had his own teeth and was wearing a green fishing jacket when he was captured. Names did not match on any of the corpses the Serbs said belonged to prisoners from the Orasac school.

It was a relief not to find her husband in the body bag, Vajzovic says, but it was also a heavy burden. Impending cease-fire or not, for Vajzovic, peace in Bosnia will come only when her husband and the 200 others shepherded away during those awful days in June, 1992, are found and properly laid to rest.

"We will find out one day, maybe only on the day we die," says Sakiba Seferovic, whose husband was among the men at the Orasac school. "Maybe they were even killed at the school. I saw one man climb onto a desk to remove a piece of shattered glass from the window. The Chetnik [Serb] just shot him dead and acted as if it was nothing."

Hundreds of Muslims from Orasac, Kulen Vakuf and outlying villages were rounded up in early June, 1992, according to interviews with a dozen survivors. The war in Bosnia was only just beginning, and most families were preparing for Kurban Bajram, one of the biggest Muslim feasts of the year.

Some villagers were captured hiding in the woods, where many fled after the first Serbian attack. Others were intercepted as they tried to cross two nearby bridges into Croatia, hoping to take refuge at a United Nations outpost manned by French troops.

Witnesses said families were split apart on the bridges, with teen-age boys escorted back to Bosnia at gunpoint as mothers and sisters begged for mercy. Those who resisted were gunned down, the witnesses said, their bodies swept into the river below.

"My husband was fleeing with his father and 16 other people across a railroad bridge when the Serbs started shooting," says Ismeta Kolakovic, whose husband was later killed in fighting near Bihac. "He and a friend were the only ones who managed to escape. As they were crawling along the river, he saw one man shot in the chest. He called out for his father, but there was no answer. We are afraid his body was in the river."

Fejzo Crnkic was in Bihac that day, working at the main telephone switchboard, when his wife, three daughters and son also tried to cross the river. Crnkic says he knew something terrible was happening because he had overheard telephone conversations between officials in Belgrade, the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, and Bosnian Serbs planning an offensive in the area.

But he didn't know how terrible it was for his family on the bridge at Strbacki Buk, a picturesque waterfall on the Bosnia-Croatia border. When Crnkic last talked to his family, they had devised an escape plan. His son, Faud, 18, would drive his mother and three sisters to safety in the family car. The boy would give their tractor and trailer to neighbors who had no other transportation.

But the rebel Serbs blocked the road. Faud, his mother and his sisters headed by foot for the bridge, knowing that U.N. troops were on the other side. Once on the bridge, Faud, a weightlifter who looked more than his years, didn't have a chance.

"He was 10 meters from his mother when the Chetniks pulled him aside," Crnkic says. "She pleaded: 'He is young. Let him go.' Another man said to my wife: 'Just go ahead. He will be in Bihac even before you get there.' "

Crnkic's family waited nervously on the Croatian side of the river until midnight, asking the French troops to intervene. The French approached the rebel Serbs but were rebuffed.

With their binoculars, they could see Faud across the river, assembled with a throng of other Muslim men under a tree. In all, more than 100 men and boys were seized at the bridge.

"My wife was caught in the middle," Crnkic says with deep sadness. "She was pushing the girls across the bridge. They were good- looking, and she was worried what might happen to them. But my only son never crossed."

Thanks to two Bosnian Serb friends working at the telephone office, Crnkic was able to trace Faud's whereabouts for the next six weeks. He and many of the men captured in Orasac were ultimately taken to a tractor repair yard in Ripac, a small town just south of Bihac.

One of Crnkic's Serbian friends visited Faud there several times. The youth's hands had been bound with heavy metal wire. He had been kicked and beaten. He was afraid. He cried.

"The last time, my son told my colleague to tell me to give up our cows because it would be too much work for me alone," Crnkic says. "After that, my colleague went back and the prisoner camp was gone. He said to me: 'Why didn't you get your son out of there sooner? Now it is too late.' "

Crnkic continued to search for his son, joining a Bihac committee that arranges exchanges between the Bosnian government and the rebel Serbs. He attended meetings for 1 1/2 years, during which his Serbian counterparts said they knew nothing of his son or the other missing Muslims from the Orasac area.

Then, in late 1993, he got his first news.

"I was sitting at one of those meetings when I was tapped on the shoulder by one of them on the Serb side," Crnkic says. "He said, 'Let's go outside.' Once outside he said: 'I have been looking at you for nearly two years, and I can't bear it anymore. I am a father too. Your son is definitely dead, and so are all of them.' "

The man offered no other details, and he pledged Crnkic to secrecy. Despondent, Crnkic stopped attending the meetings a few months later.

He still has not revealed the conversation to fellow members of a support group in Bihac for families with missing relatives.

For many of them, Crnkic says, hope is all they have left. "I would be too sorry to take that away," he says.

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