Fighting leaves a trail of tears / No help or haven for refugees

USA Today
June 18, 1992, Thursday, Final Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
LENGTH: 1452 words

DAKOVO, Croatia
Sooner or later, the devastation of war forces everyone here to cry.

The 1.5 million refugees fleeing their homes in Croatia or Bosnia cry when they tell of how generations-old homes have been destroyed. They cry when they tell of loved ones who are dead or missing. And they cry as they see the arms or legs of their children either maimed by shrapnel or cut off on a makeshift operating table.

”I don’t know nothing about my family,” said Emina Sabotic, 38, from the Bosnian village of Busojano. She arrived in the first formal refugee camp that opened here last week. ”My mother was to be in the convoy that came here but now I hear she is dead,” Sabotic said. She weeps when asked about her husband and son: ”They are in prison. They too will die.”

The old anger among Balkan groups has a million reasons for its fury. But in this war of 1992, civilians on all sides have discovered something in common: The devil has them all by the throat.

”From the victims’ perspective, nobody is winning this war,” said Fabrivio Hochschild of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. ”Everybody is suffering terribly.”

Travelers through what was Yugoslavia find refugees everywhere, in the greatest flow of displaced persons in Europe since World War II.

They live in old boxcars on abandoned railway tracks, targets for bored gunners. They live in the rubble of destroyed concrete bridges, in former sports facilities under basketball hoops and in holes clawed out of muddy mountains.

The vast majority are elderly, mostly women, whose heads are wrapped in scarves and who wear long dark dresses. Almost always they are holding or tugging children whose deep brown or sea blue eyes look glazed and vacant.

Hadjira Kasumovic, 81, from the village of Zvornik on the Bosnia-Serbia border, was in her kitchen two weeks ago when three Serbian irregulars burst in demanding gold and German marks.

”I told them I had no money. They took my 14-year-old grandson from the other room. I shouted out at them to leave him alone, but they shut me up. The captain asked him for money and he said he had none,” Kasumovic said.

But the soldiers did not leave. Instead, they grabbed the boy and opened a pair of scissors so the points were over each eye and said, ”This is how we pluck out Muslim eyes,” Kasumovic said.

”They then put down the scissors and grabbed his arm and said this is how they break arms. Then they put the pistol in his mouth and then he said his mother has some marks. The soldiers took him away,” Kasumovic said.

She shuts her eyes as the tears begin. Other refugees huddle close by, hoping to exorcise their own demons by hearing her tale.

Kasumovic managed to flee her village with others, eventually traveling through Hungary to the refugee camp here in Croatia. She was united with her son who had left earlier; but now, her grandson has disappeared. ”I’d rather be killed now,” she said.

But Kasumovic waits. Her life now depends largely on international relief and the food supplies and political solutions others may offer.

Already the strain of caring for refugees is beginning to show.

Slovenia, whose war of independence ended quickly last year, has shut its borders to refugees. Croatia has said it cannot pay for any more relief.

Croatian officials estimate that 700,000 of their people – about 15% of the population – has become displaced. In the United States, that would translate to 30 million people.

With these refugees come the dire side affects of war: disease, rape, torture and starvation.

”These people are coming for two reasons: hunger and fear,” said Mirjana Kujundzic, who heads Croatia’s Office for Displaced Persons and Refugees.

The first formal refugee camp opened here least week on a former military base. There are 1,000 persons here, half of whom are children; another 4,000 are expected by week’s end. By refugee camp standards, it’s a palace.

There is running water and toilets that work most of the time. A small medical staff works from a clinic. Refugees live in either barracks or tents under large trees.

The camp is run by Lavoslic Bosanac, who spent four weeks in a prison camp in Serbia before being exchanged for other prisoners.

”We will go to great lengths to see that these conditions are healthy,” he said.

”People are dying here every day, but it just becomes numbers to the world. You look and start to think does anybody feel anything?” On the front lines of horror, no one escapes feeling pain.

Kasumovic’s 57-year-old son, Memnun, fled Zvornik in early April after soldiers surrounded the village. All the Serbian residents fled and the shelling started.

He and his son first ran to a nearby hill with others, hiding behind trees and rocks: ”We tried to get away, but a woman beside me was having a baby. We gave her a blanket. She had the baby and we left. But then the baby fell out of the blanket into the mud. We learned this later when I went back for the baby but …” His voice trails off, the flow of the story interrupted by the flow of his tears.

Memnum had been an elementary school teacher, teaching Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian children. ”Children all played together before,” he said. ”Now I would not know how to teach Serbian children.” It is the children most of all who seem damaged, psychologically and emotionally, by the war.

”Sometimes it is very difficult when we must decide which children will get the blood,” said Melita Nakic, a doctor at Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Zagreb.

Nakic said she and other physicians have studied war injuries, but nothing prepared them for what they had to do. Now she begins to cry and fumble for cigarettes. ”I think nevermore can I smile like I did before,” she says.

One patient, Vizkic Hroje, 8, from the Croatian coast town of Zadar, lost the lower part of his left leg to shelling. His father, mother and sister were killed, gunned down by snipers as they tried to escape.

Vizkic’s spirits are good as he awaits his artificial leg. But he coughs and grabs his stomach, later pulling up his pajama top to reveal a gash caused by shrapnel.

Nearby, in the Martinovka Sports Center in Zagreb, a temporary refugee center, an older woman reaches out. ”Come and give a cigarette to grandma,” she says.

Her name is Hana Hasancevic, 66, from the Bosnian village of Grapska. Her initial good nature changes when she tells her tale.

”They told us you would never see your village again,” she said.

She and the others fled when ”we found a man slaughtered and his head was apart from his body.

”I would start this day back if I could,” she said. ”But they have slaughtered everything. They have burned everything. I am wearing everything I have. Help us.”

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