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01 May 1994 The Observer Page 26 Ed Vulliamy .pdf

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01 May 1994: The Observer - Page 26 - (4960 words)
Out of darkness into light: When war forced the Muslims of Mostar
underground, it was Sarajevo that held the world's headlines. Ed Vulliamy tells
the story of Bosnia's forgotten siege
Ramiza Kevric has white hair, and in her dark eyes is the kind of
stare that wretched memories bring. Ramiza is 65, and has not moved
from her dank mattress during the five months that she has lived on
the crowded floor of what was the theatre foyer in East Mostar. The
shelling had been so heavy she was too frightened even to go over to
the plastic window, let alone to venture on to the streets of Mostar's
Muslim enclave where one in every 40 people has been killed in the
past nine months.
In May 1993 there were 10,000 people, mostly Muslims, living on the
east bank of the river that divides Mostar. That figure is now 50,000,
most of them women and children wrenched from their homes during a
hurricane of 'ethnic cleansing'. East Mostar is a stockade, not a
city. To the north, south and west are Croats, to the east are Serbs.
Every building has taken several direct hits, and most have been
incinerated. Near the theatre foyer is a nest of mauled flats which
people call 'Beirut', where families live in basements beneath the
towers of smashed glass, concrete and metal that were once their
homes. Eight out of 10 people in East Mostar spent the winter
Ramiza Kevric was at home with her daughter on the western side of the
city when the Croatian soldiers came to her door. 'Men in uniform,'
she recalls, 'three of them they told us to go immediately and to take
nothing with us. My daughter wanted to take her medicines - she
suffered from epilepsy - but they shouted 'GO! GO!' There was shooting
everywhere. We made it across the front lines into the east, but
without her medicine my daughter has since died.'
On the day I heard this story, Bosnia's capricious political
weathercock was spinning busily. An American initiative had advanced a
scheme whereby Croats and Muslims would exist in a federation. There
had been pressure on the Croats to relent in their annexation of part
of Bosnia, with rumours of financial incentives if they did so, and
the threat of sanctions if they did not. And so, while Ramiza knitted
on her mattress, a ceasefire was declared, and East Mostar enjoyed its
first day in nine months without shells (although the snipers were
busier than ever).
Mostar's war - overshadowed by the glare of publicity on Sarajevo and
latterly Gorazde - began back in 1992, when the mainly Muslim Bosnian
Government Army and the Croatian HVO militia were allies against the
Serbs. In June 1992, a remarkable joint push by the Bosnian Army and
the HVO drove the Serbian army out of its strongholds on the eastern
side of the city and up into the hills. The cost of the Serbian
retreat from Mostar came to light weeks later: mass graves filled with
the stinking remains of 200 mangled bodies, including those of women

and children - Muslims caught in villages the Serbs were leaving. The
pathologist who inspected the corpses said they had been shot at close
range with automatic weapons some had been buried alongside farm
Mostar was traditionally Ottoman and Muslim, but had sizeable Serb and
Croat minorities by the turn of the century. After the Second World
War, Tito's industrialisation programmes brought in a wave of
Croatians. The Muslims remained, marginally, the majority population
when Bosnia's war began. Mostar was then one of Bosnia's most
beautiful cities. Nestled deep in the Neretva valley, it was home to
some of the finest Ottoman mosques anywhere, its riverbanks linked by
a glorious high-arched bridge. Its architect, Hajrudin, was threatened
with execution by his patron, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, if the
bridge, built in the 16th century, ever fell down. And Hajrudin did
his work well: the bridge - which has graced a million tourist
postcards - survived 30 earthquakes. In the summer of 1992 anxious
citizens covered it with a corrugated iron roof and hung it with car
tyres in an effort to protect it from Serbian shelling, which began
reliably and ferociously each evening.
The liberation of East Mostar concealed the imminent break-up of the
alliance between the Croats and Bosnian Army. The Croatians in Bosnia
had been fighting to their own agenda. With the backing of Zagreb,
they had embarked on their own racial-political project: a Croatian
state within Bosnia called 'Herzeg-Bosna' Mostar would be its capital.
It took some time for the Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban to stamp his
authority on the hills of 'Herzeg-Bosna' and to collect the farrago of
thugs and militias on its territory into a single Croatian Army. But
in Mostar, as the 'Herzeg-Bosna' project got into full swing, the
Croat priority was no longer the Serbs it was the Muslims and the
Bosnian Government Army with whom they had liberated the city, and
against whom they now turned.
In October 1992, on the day that Croatian militias began the
systematic and brutal 'ethnic cleansing' of Muslims in Prozor, central
Bosnia, the HVO in Mostar put out a statement saying it would not
tolerate any 'Muslim extremists' living in any area where there were
Croatian citizens. The HVO command simultaneously declared that it no
longer recognised the legitimacy of the Sarajevo government or its
defence forces. Three days later the HVO gave the Government Army an
ultimatum: either to come under direct Croatian control or to hand
over its weapons to the HVO. 'I do not recognise the army of the
republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina,' declared Mate Boban. 'We, the HVO,
are the only effective army in the free territory. If they want to
call themselves the Bosnian Army, that's their business. They must
come under our authority.'
The HVO commander, Miljenko Lasic, sent troops fanning out across
Mostar in trucks to take over the courthouse, police station, post
office and telephone buildings. Inside the cordon sanitaire of
beer-swilling clods around his headquarters, he explained over a glass
of duty-free Scotch that his Croatian troops would be 'much stronger
and better organised if we removed the Bosnian Army altogether from

Mostar. I told them yesterday, they are free to remove their men from
the front lines.' An uneasy peace held in the city for a while, thanks
mainly to the restraint and naivety of the Government Army, but
Muslims were now third-class citizens in Mostar, and a 'second' war
was delayed only by the continuing Serbian bombardment.
That war finally broke out on 9 May 1993, with a night-long barrage of
mortar and shellfire. Within a matter of days, two things happened:
the Bosnian Army was pushed out of the west side of the city, except
for a promontory which it held - two blocks of houses deep - around
the old Turkish souk, or market. And the 'cleansing' of Muslim
civilians from their homes began, an entire population of thousands
herded on to buses, driven up to the new front lines, and walking the
deadly no-man's-land over the venerable old bridge to the other side
of the river. Like the Serbs in northern and eastern Bosnia, the
Croats ordered Muslims to hang white flags from their homes so that
they could be identified.
In the chaos on the east side of the river, they collected outside the
newly established Army headquarters, underground. Jasmina, a lady in
early middle age, was among them: 'We knew the Croats would come for
us in the end. We must have been among the last left in our
neighbourhood. And of course they did. They said we had to go because
we were 'filthy Muslims' and 'fucking gypsies'. They put us on a bus,
without seats, 19 of us, but they kept back the young ladies, at least
the pretty ones. I don't want to say what I think they were going to
do with them, but I think I can guess. They took all our jewellery or
money and possessions and as we got on the bus, trucks were already
arriving ready to load up the things from our houses. The bus took us
to the river, the soldiers pushed us out and sent us across the lovely
old bridge.'
For three months, the ethnic cleansing of West Mostar proceeded out of
sight of prying international eyes. The city was sealed off to
journalists, the United Nations and all aid agencies as the Croats did
their business in private. On 8 May, after a tip-off from the Croats,
'Spanbatt', the battery of Spanish troops from the so-called
'Protection Force' of the United Nations, had abandoned its base in
town. The more reliable and organised British Army had for months been
trying to assume responsibility for Mostar, fearing what was to come,
but the Spanish had refused to hand over, confident of their capacity
to handle the upcoming offensive and do the job required.
Meanwhile, the grotesque harvest of women and children from the whole
Mostar area continued. In all, the UN teams estimated, 45-50,000
Muslims were 'cleansed' from homes in and around West Mostar between
May and September and sent to the tiny enclave on the other side of
the river.
In July 1993, with Mostar closed, we managed to get into Capljina, one
of its satellite towns, by driving a beat-up car with Croatian plates
and pretending to read Croat newspapers with our feet sticking out of
the car window, spitting and chewing gum - the kind of deportment that
gets you waved through HVO roadblocks and into their 'secure zones'.

In town there was an inhospitable silence few people were on the
streets except the usual uncouth heavies from the HVO. The smell of
charred stone hung in the air from shops and houses recently
dynamited. Four foreign aid workers had been arrested in Capljina, and
a CNN crew had that day been uncovered, detained and had its equipment
confiscated. An old man walking down the street by a park told us he
was going to his son's flat to see if it was still there. Both his
boys had been taken, he said his eyes filled and he crossed the road,
saying: 'I cannot talk to you.' We elected to move with caution,
starting from the mosque. A woman, also too nervous to speak, ushered
us up a back stairway to the imam's house.
'I am the only Muslim male under 70 left in Capljina, because I am a
religious official,' said Imam Hassan Palic. The seizure of men had
begun in June, after all the telephone lines had been cut and
roadblocks thrown up around town. As we were talking to the Imam an
elderly woman came into the mosque: 'Look, I am not going to cry in
front of you, or tear my hair out. Just this: they took my four sons.
We went to the camp to ask what had happened to them, and they said,
laughing, that they had killed my second son, and put stinging nettles
on his grave, as an insult.' This lady said that women were starting
to disappear too, 'sent with their children to East Mostar'.
Another, younger, woman came in and told us to stop talking and stay
on quietly, because a group of soldiers was patrolling the street
below and if we were found speaking. . . 'My husband was a football
player,' she whispered, 'he was just kicking a ball around in the
stadium with our boys when they took him. We fought with these people
against the Chetniks. Our men were in the HVO and some were even
fighting on the front lines with the Croats against the Serbs when
they taken. We have lost our men, and there is no appeal, no law here
any more.'
Indeed, the wheel of war had turned full circle. First the Serbs in
northern Bosnia, now the Croats in Mostar: troops stomping the
streets, shops and houses shelled, word of concentration camps. The
women in the Imam's house had come up with names of the places they
believed these camps to be - Garbela and Dretelj.
All international aid organisations had been refused access to the
camps in and around Mostar, but in September UNHCR officials in
Jablanica, north of Mostar, saw the first men to be 'released' from
them. They were skeletal and malnourished. They had been stripped
naked at the Croat outpost positions and sent running down a rocky
track towards the Government Army lines, fired upon as they did so.
The UN officials had dealt with teenagers in conditions of severe
trauma, some of them as young as 13 years old. Some prisoners said
they had been forced to have anal sex with one another and with
Two months after our first unsuccessful request to Mate Boban's office
to visit the Dretelj camp, we finally made it through its gates to
find the Muslim menfolk of what was now Croatian West Mostar.

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