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Milosevic's Children

I - The Vis"egrad Mathausen

The famous bridge over the Drina apart, nothing is the same any more in Vis"egrad. The buildings appear crooked and neglected, they look like ruins. The majority of them are plastered with posters from which Karadzic gazes seriously and meaningfully. The Serb Democratic Party is inviting people to vote.

We are visiting the 'Okolis"te' refugee camp in Vis"egrad. Along the way the driver shows us the place in the centre of town where a mosque once stood. It is no longer there. Neither are the Muslim houses. They have literally all been destroyed. Some were blown up, so that now only small piles of rubble remain. Others were torched, and their shells are only just still standing. The driver tells us that in 1992, after two days of fighting, the Uzice Corps [of the Serbian Army] 'liberated' the town from its majority-Muslim population. There were 14,000 of them. Now not a single one remains.

We soon arrived at Number 12, Krajina Brigades Street. Once these premises were army barracks. Today they are a refuge for 800 people from Konjic and its surroundings. At the modest supper prepared by the camp doctor we meet Jovo Sari_, who was appointed 'by the people' to organize the resettlement of the Serb population from the municipality of Konjic. The area they had defended throughout the war fell after the Dayton Accords. Asked whether their departure was to some extent forced, he tells us that the vote on whether to stay or go was secret; and that of 644 families, 636 voted to leave. The rest did so too, but they did not wish to go to Vis"egrad.

Nearly a year later, everybody seems to have forgotten these refugees from Konjic. We accept an offer to stay the night. The next morning we visit the room set aside for sick people, and meet Joka Okljanin, an old woman dressed all in black. She tells us: 'I've never been so weak. I began to feel worse after my son was killed in a Croat- Muslim prison. Even before the war we were poor, but we had a little house. The Muslims would fix the electricity for us and I would cook them lunch. My neighbours were Croats. I used to work for them, cleaning their houses. I'd like to return, if only they'd not touch our children. I'd do so, even though they left me without my son. If only they'd establish some rules that we could all keep and live together. Here, one's always worried. Fourteen of us sleep in the same room.'

It is early in the morning and groups of men are already sitting in front of the barracks talking. They appear weary, their gaze somehow switched off. 'They have no jobs, they just sit doing nothing. They're killing time', says Dr Mihail Nikolov. All but one of the barracks have bathrooms. Each is shared by fifty people. However, according to the doctor, 'in comparison with "Prelovo" refugee camp, "Okolis"te" is Holiday Inn.'

'Prelovo' is situated twelve kilometres from the city centre. It was once a primary school and now houses 330 refugees. On the door someone has written 'Mathausen' and below it 'Refugee Camp', as if to explain. In the middle just next to the entrance is one of Karadzic's electoral posters. On both sides there are climbing ladders on the wall. Children sit here, with older women knitting. They are all terribly thin. Talking to them we become convinced that most of them retain their confidence in Karadzic. The majority do not believe in the possibility of return. Slavojka _u_a insists: 'I'd never go back, even if I had to spend another ten years here. I'd never live with them, never again.' Her eight-year-old son Milan: 'My place was beautiful. Everything was good there. Here I'm all right, but I miss everything.' Was he clear as to why he could not return? 'It's because the balije are there.' Who are the balije? 'They're our enemies.' And how do they differ from Serbs? Milan answers in confusion: 'I don't know. Nobody has explained this to me properly. I can't remember. But because of them we had to run away and come to Vis"egrad.'

The doctor tells us: 'People are physically and emotionally exhausted. Their immunity system is also weakening. They collapse from an ordinary cold. The children are anaemic and every other person has psychological problems. The number of those who are depressed or aggressive is growing. The danger of infection is enormous. An epidemic could break out at any moment. Two days ago I diagnosed two cases of hepatitis.' The doctor dreams of a new hospital at 'Okolis"te'. But the municipality, it seems, has no money for such projects.

Based on a report by Marijana Milosavlevic in NIN, Belgrade, 2 August 1996

II - The 'Slapovic' Reception Centre

Anyone with a reasonable knowledge of geography is aware that before the war Srebrenica was notorious for its bad communications. And if from this cul-de-sac you go twenty kilometres up the mountain, and then another couple of kilometres along a half-flooded dirt road, you will come to the 'Slapovic' reception centre.. Some twelve or thirteen hundred Serbs live there today. Following the enormous territorial losses in western and central Bosnia in the late summer of 1995, Srebrenica became the designated destination for the inhabitants of Donji Vakuf (in the war renamed Srbobran). A few also came from Bihac and Krupa. Those with nowhere, really nowhere, else to go came here at the end of October 1995, when the 'Slapovic' reception centre was opened, since as its inhabitants tell us: 'they said everybody had to pass through a reception centre.' Until something better comes up - but when that will be nobody knows.

'Slapovic' was built by the Swedish government for the Muslim population, at a time when Srebrenica was an isolated enclave. According to some, the camp was established in this faraway wilderness because this was the only place in the whole enclave where the ground was sufficiently flat to allow the erection of a hundred-odd bungalows, which make the camp look from the outside like a tourist settlement. Others say the location was chosen because it offered at least some minimal protection against artillery attacks. The houses are built of wood, and each has two small rooms and a kitchen. The camp has neither water nor electricity. Its only link with the outside world is a radio station owned by the local police. There is a four-grade primary school, with 84 pupils. The teacher, herself a refugee, is pleased with the children: 'They spent four years under shelling, and thank God that's over.' The older children, however - some 120 of them - have to travel on foot to school in Srebrenica. 'If only they could provide some transport for them. When the snow falls, nobody can get through.'

'It's a miserable life', says seventy-three-year-old Drago Naerac, who is one of the camp's oldest residents. 'I read in the "Hundred Year Almanack" that a time would come when fools would rule. That's what we've got now.' He also offers a solution. 'The people have been ruined by all the bigwigs - Muslim, Serb and Croat alike. The best thing to do is change the leaderships, so that we can go back to our homes, each to his own.' 'Eh, Grandpa, it's all right for you, you didn't fight in the war. I'd return tomorrow too, if Serbs were in control.', says An_elko, a youngish man who spent the war on the Donji Vakuf front. 'When the command to withdraw came, you took with you what you could. The women could only collect the children. The men went directly into exile from the front, in the uniforms they're still wearing. When I go to Bratunac, they ask me why I'm still in uniform; as if I would be, if I had anything else to put on.'

Each person receives 10 kilos of flour per month, a cup of oil, half a kilo of rice, half a kilo of beans (which nobody wants, because they can't be cooked) and, most important, a 340-gram tin of some meat product or fish. 'Five or six of us get together, and we walk up to 20 kilometres in search of a few onions or potatoes that the Muslims planted for themselves.' ( 'The poor have sown, and the poor reap', was Grandpa Drago's comment.) 'If we could go to Belgrade or Novi Sad and get some work there, we could earn 15 or 20 dinars, which would be something. But to get there you need to pay DM 15, which nobody here has.' The furthest they get is Srebrenica or Bratunac, thirty kilometres on foot, since there is no transport and, even if there were, nobody would be able to afford it. 'I was there twice. There's no work there either. But at least I see other people.'

'We're not allowed to use the graveyard. Since our arrival a few people have died, and we had to bury them outside the fence. Those few graves you may have seen coming up the road are ours.' A month ago, an old man, a refugee from Sarajevo, died five days after arriving in the camp. They say he died of hunger. He lay dead for four days before they came to bury him in the forest above the camp. At first there was no medical care at all, but now a doctor comes each Tuesday. 'I wish they'd kill us all.', says one woman. 'Not me, not after I've survived all that shelling.', a man responds seriously. He shows us his footwear: a pair of red women's shoes, which is what many of the inmates have got for trudging through the all-pervasive mud.

And what do they do all day? 'We look out for cars.' 'Does anybody ever come?' 'Yes, civil police and IFOR', reply the men. Grandpa Drago jumps in: 'Woe to the house where the village keeps the peace.' Amid the general misery, those who have not lost their families are the lucky ones. The wretchedest are those who have to spend their time alone, contemplating their loss. We ask a sixteen-year-old youth how they spend their time. 'We play football, what else?' he retorts aggressively. There is no electricity, so they cannot have music. They sit and talk. There are no guitars or accordions - who would have taken such things, when they had less than an hour to flee and that under shelling?

The people in the camp worry about their future. The brook is polluted, there is no sanitation, the warm weather is coming and they fear epidemics. They are convinced that they could not survive another winter. 'We shall have nothing to eat. They haven't given us any seed to sow, and we don't have money to buy any. Only wood is plentiful and free.' All around the camp the forest has been cropped, although the new camp inmates like their Muslim predecessors have taken care not to damage the trees beyond repair.

According to the camp manager, they were told on arrival that nobody would spend more than four days here. A year later, they are negotiating with the Swedish government to relocate the camp, though they have little hope. The new Srebrenica authorities have promised to let them settle, 20 or 30 bungalows at a time, in the neighbouring villages, where they will be able to work the land and slowly repair the houses. Significantly, one of the villages he mentions is Osmace, made famous by General Mladic's remark: 'no Serb foot ever trod here until we liberated it.' Now any Serb who wishes may tread there - but many, used to urban life, have no wish to become peasants. In the meantime, there is no electricity and no transport and the most they can hope for is that someone may send them shoes.

Based on a report by Srboljub Bogdanovic in NIN, Belgrade, 12 April 1996

III - The 'Kis"nica' Colony

A young Albanian woman explains that 'Kis"nica' is where the forgotten refugees live, ten kilometres from Prishtina [in Kosova]. 'Kis"nica 99' used to be a miners' hostel. A place full of mud, mixed with every kind of rubbish. As we reach it drizzle begins to fall, and the stench of poverty chokes us. A dirt road separates off to the right, running alongside the entrance to the 'Trepca' mine. Children with dirty faces and crushed men. 'It looks like the end of the world; as if there's nothing beyond' - that is how the refugees describe the place. There are about ninety of them living in the barracks, consumed by uncertainty, and in complete isolation unless you count the occasional distribution by the Red Cross of food and unwearable clothes. They say they feel as if they had been dropped from the sky.

It was evening when eighteen-year-old Vesna arrived, together with four members of her family, as part of a contingent of refugees from 'Krajina' [in Croatia] assigned to 'plug the gap in Kosovo'. Since it was dark they could not see their surroundings, but they could smell the stench of sewage. Next day she was able to see a land wholly different from the karst in which she had grown up. She now lives in the barracks with the others, apathetically and passively, from one day to the next, 'without any positive view of the future'. Here in the miners' hostel on top of the hill, they inherited what the miners had left behind. Each got a bed, two blankets, one plate, one spoon and one fork.

'You're the first person who has come to see us and hear what we have to say, and for us to learn something. Nobody cares about us.' They have read in the newspapers that the government plans to allow them a choice between staying in Serbia - but in Kosovo - or returning whence they came. 'But where do they mean? How can we decide, when we know nothing? The information we get by reading the papers is contradictory and confusing. How can we, down here, know what has happened to our land and our houses? I wouldn't want to stay in Kosovo, not for anything in the world. If I can't go to Serbia itself, I'd far rather go back home even if they killed me than suffer here' , one man says. Moreover, they fear the possibility of war in Kosovo, which is why, if the majority were to opt to go back, they would as well. 'We haven't been well received here. Our hosts tell us that we're taking their sons' jobs, that we've reduced the price of labour. They ask us why we came - this is their land.'

'I have nothing and that's that', comments eighty-year-old Zora. 'Neither king, nor state, nor emperor, nor any damn thing. We're a wretched lot, with nothing of our own. Those who haven't seen this with their own eyes can't imagine what it's like. I'm an old woman, but I'd much rather throw myself into the Sava or the Danube than go to the state of Paveli_ and Tudjman. Those who wish to go, good luck to them. But I'd much rather die, only let them bury me somehow. That's what I think, but at night I dream of looking after my cows back there in my meadow.'

Lela carries clothes to wash in cold water in a concrete sink. She was sent here in 1992. She comes from Sarajevo. Has anything changed here since then? 'Nothing. I'm slowly dying here, psychologically. I have nowhere to return to. Even those who spent the past four years in Sarajevo have left it now, so how can I think of going back? They should first go and see what the situation is there, and only then invite us to return. I can't get used to this place. When you come here from a big city, you think this is the end of the world. Perhaps that's not a nice thing to say. I can't decide what to do. I can't stay here and I can't go back. What I really want to do is go abroad, away from this madhouse.'

The forty-year-old man with whiskers was surprised when one day he heard his five- year-old son say something in Albanian. 'What he will become, if he stays here? An Albanian? You go to work and you're totally on your own, they talk and you can't understand a thing, you're like a broken branch. Either north to Serbia, or back home if that's what the majority decides.' He is not complaining about the conditions. And the fact that back home his son had had only three injections since birth, while here in 'Kis"nica' he has had one hundred and twenty, he puts down simply to the change of climate. But he feels imprisoned here, he says, there is nowhere to run away to, he just moves in a circle like a goldfish. 'We have nowhere to go, no path leading to a real life. Nobody comes to see us, to tell us if there's any chance for us, whether some new door will open for us or we shall have to stay here.'

'My future? It seems you can't escape from here, as if you've been nailed down. I'd like to go abroad, but how, when I've got no documents, only a piece of paper', says seventeen-year-old Dragana. In 'Kis"nica' you can feel the darkness.

Based on a report by Tanja Nikoli_ in NIN, Belgrade, 26 April 1996

IV - The 'Letenka', 'Lenimir' and 'Autobaza' Refugee Camps

When you get to Frus"ka Gora, do not rely on road signs to find the 'Letenka' refugee camp. If they point to the right, then be sure to turn left; and if anyone tells you 'straight on', remind them that the road ahead forks. When you finally do arrive, you will find only women, old people and invalids. During the daytime, all those capable of working are away in the forest or the village, to see if there is any job going. There are no children - they have been moved to camps nearer the school.

'Letenka' belongs to the Frus"ka Gora National Park and was once used for excursions and summer schools. Since 1992 it has been home to a hundred or so refugees from the area round Podravska Slatina [in Croatia]. From the outside it looks idyllic. Pretty little bungalows in the woods, reasonably clean and well-maintained. The idyll vanishes, however, once you realize that each room contains several families. Only a few lucky ones have a room to themselves. There is a canteen, a communal kitchen and a television set. That is all.

'People are always coming by, like yourselves, for a look and a chat, but nobody offers us anything. Nobody asks what we eat, how we keep warm, and how it feels when you're forty and have to sleep with your parents. This is a prison of the open type. We're isolated like savages, even the staff is forbidden to talk to us. People don't dare complain, but I'm not frightened, I'll tell the truth. Write down that my name is Marko Vukadinovic, from Ceralije. I haven't seen my child for five years, my marriage was mixed, I was wounded, I managed to get an ulcer here, and now I have to look for bread in the dustbins. Even Tudjman would have treated me better.'

Two years ago Bratislava Morina [Serbia's minister for refugees] visited 'Letenka' and promised everybody resettlement in Vojvodina. And before that medical care - but only two half-empty boxes arrived, containing drugs whose shelf-life had run out in 1990. They get six dinars apiece from the refugee commission. Red Cross aid is increasingly infrequent. The National Park manager says they are doing all they can, which is why the Park is operating at a loss. 'They can stay here until October, when we plan rebuilding here. We've looked after them for the past five years.'

'There's bread here, but apart from that... There's no medicine, I can't buy anything, nobody wants to employ an old man. I can't go anywhere. I'd like to return. I earned a pension back there, let them give it to me if they wish, or kill me if they wish', says fifty-four-year-old Vito _eljevi_ from Vo_in. The inmates of 'Letenka' tell us that Yugoslavia will issue them only with military documents, and 'if you want citizenship, just pay DM 3,000 and you'll get it'. The news that a register of refugees is being made has given the majority hope that somebody knows they exist, and that 'the people up there have finally worked out what to do with us'. Others, however, doubt whether much will change. On our way out of the camp an elderly gentleman approaches us, saying he is 'an old-age pensioner without anybody in the world'. 'I'll tell you, but don't record me and don't mention my name. We've been written off. Neither Serbia nor Croatia nor Kosovo wants us, and there's no return. We can only graze like cattle.'

A few kilometres from 'Letenka' lies the 'Lenimir' camp. Some seventy refugees are housed in the 'Frus"ka Gora' hotel. Wool is drying at the windows, part of an aid consignment that arrived a few days ago, along with some fires which, thanks to the bad weather, have gone into immediate service. The wool is to knit jumpers with for the winter. 'Nobody ever visits us. And if they do come, they just talk to the camp manager and go off. Nobody asks us anything, though we'd at least like to have our minds put at rest.' Aid comes rarely and in insufficient quantities, but at least the village is near, so that the children can go to school and the parents find work. They have to rely on the good will of people who need help at home or in the fields. But as to wages and conditions, they'd better not say anything: 'it has to be done, otherwise the children will go hungry.'

'Jovan Radulovic did tell us before, when we were all fixed on Serbia: "You don't know how little Serbia cares for you." But we didn't believe him', says a teacher from Knin who arrived in August 1995. 'The people here don't understand us and don't accept us. They think we came in luxury cars and with lots of money, but my grandchildren came in their pyjamas. Now we live on dry bread. I don't want to live like this. It's better to go home, even if they kill me, rather than die slowly here.'

The inmates of 'Lenimir' come mainly from towns: Sarajevo, Knin, Zagreb. They do not like giving their names, in case their Croat neighbours may read about them. The former inhabitants of Sarajevo and Zagreb do not want to go back, for fear of being murdered. They do not complain so much about their conditions of life, as about the resistance shown towards them by the local people. Their isolation makes them feel they have been excluded from the world: 'as if we wore horns'. 'What just landed on your shoulder was one of our refugee mosquitos', they say without irony, as they offer 'refugee coffee from refugee cups'.

The 'Autobaza' camp is sited in the outskirts of Ruma, at the end of a cul-de-sac off the motorway that runs alongside the railway line. Of the five locals we stopped to ask for directions, not one knew there was a refugee camp there; they could barely remember how to get to 'Autobaza' at all.

In the wooden huts that must once have housed the workers who used to maintain the road, there are a hundred or so refugees from Glina, Petrinja, Dalmatia, Banija. Most of them arrived in August 1995. Nobody wants to talk. They play cards or sit in front of the barracks, taking little notice of the visitors. We ask them if we can have a talk and they reply: 'All right, talk away!' If anyone does say anything, he will not give his name, but mostly just waves his hand: 'The days are long here: you lie around a bit, you sit for a bit, you eat a bit, then it's all over again. Nobody tells us anything, nobody comes, the locals say it's our fault their lives are so hard. We're suspended between earth and heaven.'

There are plenty of children playing in the dust around the barracks. Their only other source of amusement is kicking a ball about in the field. A woman says, without moving, as if to herself: 'It's hard on us, but it's particularly hard on the children. Nobody wants to play with them. We put two or three of them in the same class, to make it easier for them. A teacher told one child: "You there, from Tunguzija"! The child's mother went to see him about it, and he said: "Oh, the lady from abroad"!'

Based on a report by Ivanka Jankovic in NIN, Belgrade, 26 April 1996