Sanctuary Now Prison for Some Bosnia Refugees

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the end of a muddy road just off the main highway here, more than 300 Muslim soldiers and military-aged men from Bosnia-Herzegovina are being held under armed guard in wooden barracks built for railroad workers.

Nearly 450 others are being interned in another village in central Serbia, and untold hundreds who crossed with them last summer into rump Yugoslavia are missing and feared dead.

Tens of thousands of Muslims, Croats and Serbs are imprisoned or unaccounted for in the Bosnian war, but what makes these men extraordinary is that they are under lock and key in rump Yugoslavia, a country not directly involved in the fighting and the one to which the men fled in desperation last summer to escape the Bosnian Serb army.

Even with the war now over, Serbian authorities have given no indication that the men will be released, unless they resettle outside the region. About two dozen of them were sent to Ireland early this month, and homes are being sought in the United States and elsewhere for the others. But there are concerns that the men are being coerced into going abroad instead of returning home.

A prominent human rights group, moreover, says the hundreds of missing men were probably killed by Serbian police or rounded up by police and Yugoslav soldiers and handed over to Bosnian Serb authorities in violation of international conventions on human rights.

"We suspect the majority of them were hunted down by the Serbian police and surrendered to the people they were running away from," said Sefko Alomerovic of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, who sheltered four of the men in his home for two weeks before they were taken away by police. "Too much time has passed for them still to be in hiding."

The human rights group has forwarded information, including witness accounts of one man killed by Serbian police and two delivered to Bosnian Serb authorities, to the War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslav federation in The Hague, which investigates war crimes in the region. The group also submitted a list with the names of 95 Muslims known to have fled to Serbia last July but who are nowhere to be found.

"There were ambushes during the night, and some of them were maybe even killed," said a resident of Sljivovica, a small village known for the plums used in making a popular brandy. "A lot of them were caught right in this area."

The missing and interned men in Serbia are among an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Muslims who fled across the Drina River into Serbia in July after the fall of Muslim-held Srebrenica and Zepa--both towns designated by the United Nations as "safe areas."

It was a desperate exodus, with the men swimming, rafting and, in shallow areas, walking across the river to avoid capture by the advancing Bosnian Serb army.

Once on the other side, about 700 immediately turned themselves in to Serbian authorities, as several dozen had done months earlier before being relocated by refugee officials, while many others tried to work their way to Montenegro, Macedonia and beyond. In all, 795 men and one woman were placed by Serbian police in the two camps, according to relief workers who have visited them.

It was an uncertain fate, but thousands of Muslims who stayed behind in Srebrenica are believed to have been killed by the Bosnian Serbs in what has been characterized as one of the worst massacres in Europe since World War II.

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Many of those who made it to Serbia were soldiers; others were civilians who took up arms in defense of their towns, as was the practice throughout the war in Bosnia among males older than 16. Many arrived in Serbia in rags or barely dressed because they left their uniforms and military-style clothing in Bosnia to avoid capture, relief workers said.

At the time, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who had officially severed his country's links with the Bosnian Serbs, welcomed the men with open arms. In a letter to Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, he promised that the Muslims would be treated "not . . . as enemies, but as people, as neighbors."

Today, they are guarded 24 hours a day; at one camp they are rarely allowed outside. No visitors are permitted, except representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which provide food, blankets, medicine and other supplies.

Serbian officials have said the men are being held for their own protection because of anti-Muslim radicals in Serbia.

The Bosnian government wants them released, and Izetbegovic, in a meeting this week with European peace envoy Carl Bildt, pushed for their speedy return to Bosnia.

"We are only interested in them coming back to Bosnia, and according to Dayton, they should be able to go back to Srebrenica," said Muharem Cero, Bosnian minister for refugees and social policy, referring to the Bosnian peace accord reached last month in Dayton, Ohio. "That alternative should be offered."

A request by The Times for access to the men was rejected without comment by the Serbian Interior Ministry, which oversees the camps. Ministry officials hung up on repeated telephone calls seeking information about the men. A journalist who arrived at the front gate was turned away by guards carrying assault rifles.

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"For their safety, we do not want anything to happen to them so long as they are on the territory of Serbia," a spokesman for the Serbian Ministry of Information in Belgrade said.

Villagers here said some of the detained men had been to the village before the war as construction workers.

One villager described them as "hard-working and good people." The villager said local police said the men were well taken care of, and some police even complained that they were getting better treatment than their guards.

But relief workers said allegations of physical abuse have been reported to Serbian authorities, though the workers declined to elaborate for fear of endangering those who disclosed the abuse. Ilija Todorovic, an officer for the U.N. refugee agency in Belgrade who is charged with protecting refugees, said the complaints stopped after the Serbian government removed several top officials at the camps.

Two people have died at the camps, but Todorovic said the deaths were not because of abuse. One man died of a heart attack, he said, and one from intestinal problems caused by eating too many sweets smuggled into the camp after having consumed only gruel in the besieged Bosnian enclaves.

Todorovic said the internees are seeking refuge abroad because they are too frightened to return to Bosnia for fear of being arrested as deserters or even mobilized again. Todorovic said he has recommended that the men resettle elsewhere, at least for the time being, until the situation in Bosnia settles down.

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But Alomerovic, the Helsinki Committee chairman in Sanjak, the region where the men are being held, said the men do not want to abandon their families in Bosnia.

He described the U.N. refugee agency's work in resettling the men abroad as "a sin against these people" and tacit approval of "ethnic cleansing" by removing the chance for Muslims to return to their homes in Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia.

But Todorovic said only about 30 of the 796 Muslims ever expressed the desire to return to Bosnia, and they eventually changed their minds. He said the Helsinki Committee's comments are uninformed.

"We don't work on assumptions; we work on what people tell us," Todorovic said. "The repatriation is voluntary."

Alomerovic said that by dispersing these men around the world, the refugee agency is helping to cover up any crimes committed by Serbian police.

"They are all dangerous witnesses," Alomerovic said. "All the details that these people know about the others--those who are unaccounted for--will be taken away with them."

Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, contributed to this report.

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