With Friends like Croats, Bosniaks Don't Need Enemies
“Let’s Kill All the Muslims”
7 June 1993.
On a recent night, soldiers from the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) forced Zurjeta Tarevljak, her three children and a dozen of their Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) neighbors from their apartments in Mostar, a town in southern Bosnia. “Let’s kill all the Muslims,” the soldiers began yelling as the people huddled in a sandlot. “The children were screaming, ‘Don’t shoot us, please don’t kill us’,” Mrs. Tarevljak says. An HVO officer stopped his men from carrying out the threat, but the Bosniaks’ relief was short-lived. Instead, the soldiers herded the families into the street, where Bosniak forces were counterattacking-and made the civilians serve as a human shield. “Go out there so your own people can shoot you,” said one HVO soldier.
For months, as the world has focused on Serb abuses in Bosnia, the Croat militia has gotten away with murder. But that may finally be changing. A new report by U.N. special human-rights rapporteur Tadeusz Mazowiecki blames the HVO for “a deliberate and systematic policy of ethnic cleansing” against Bosniaks in the central Bosnian region of Vitez and in Mostar. And Russia has threatened to ask for international sanctions against Croatia if the mayhem doesn’t stop. “The Croats have done a good propaganda job to keep their image going,” says a foreign humanitarian official in Zagreb. “Now this varnish is cracking and they are panicking.”
The Bosniaks have discovered that with friends like the Croats, they don’t need enemies. Supported by the Zagreb government of President Franjo Tudjman, the Bosnian Croats used to back the Bosniak-led Sarajevo government against the Serbs. But Tudjman’s heart wasn’t in the alliance. Well-armed HVO forces made only a show of helping to break the Serbian siege of Sarajevo-all the while seizing arms and fuel shipments meant for the Bosniaks. High-level contacts between Zagreb and Belgrade since 1991 have fed suspicions that the Serbs and Croats have a secret understanding to carve up Bosnia between them.
At a minimum, the Croats want to shift the ethnic balance in certain mixed areas of the country. Says Mate Boban, the man Tudjman has placed in charge of the Croatian-imposed state of Herceg-Bosna: “The territories that have been designated Croat provinces by the Vance-Owen plan will have to be in Croatian authority again. We will try to do everything to achieve that by political means, but if not, we will do it by force.” Lately, Zagreb media controlled by Tudjman have been feeding their audiences the same hysteria about “Islamic fundamentalism” that Serbs get from Belgrade TV. The fighting in Mostar, Bohan claims, “was part of an international plot based on information provided to the Bosniaks by Western intelligence agencies.” He scoffs: “Show me one single Bosniak who has been ethnically cleansed.”
All-out attack:In Mostar you could show him thousands. Early in May the HVO capped months of threats against civilians by launching an all-out attack, forcing the Bosniaks into a pocket on the east bank of the city. Then Croat soldiers wearing stockings over their faces began kicking down doors in predawn raids on Bosniak families that had remained on the west bank. Many of the Croats also wore armbands connecting them with the Ustashe, pro-Nazi Croatian forces from World War II. At least 2,000 Bosniak civilians, many still in their nightclothes, were marched into HVO detention camps. Although international pressure soon forced the Croats to release detainees, foreign relief officials told NEWSWEEK they are still trying to locate hundreds of men who were separated from the main body of prisoners and led to unknown destinations.
Croat authorities last week continued to evict Bosniaks from their homes-at the rate of 200 to 300 a day, according to inter-national agencies. The Neretva River, once a tourist attraction because of the graceful old Turkish bridge that used to span it, has become Mostar’s new dividing line. Croat authorities allowed Spanish U.N. forces to escort people across the river. Led by half a dozen U.N. armored personnel carriers, four bullet-riddled buses picked up people on each bank and ferried them across a military bridge in the heart of the combat zone. A total of 51 sniper shots was fired at the convoys from HVO positions despite the U.N. escort, and two mortar rounds landed near the bridge. Miraculously, no one was injured.
Many of those abandoning basement shelters on the Bosniak-held east bank were Croats. They seemed sorry to be leaving friends behind. Ivan Stojcic, a Croat married to a Serb, put his wife and 10-year-old son on a bus, then drove his car into the convoy; his son’s bicycle was lashed on top, the family dog leashed to the door inside. “They were good neighbors,” said Mustafa Dinovic. There were tears in his eyes as he said goodbye to Ivan’s wife, Stanica. “It’s not a struggle between the people but between the politicians for power,” said Stanica.
Many Bosniak soldiers themselves had once fought in the ranks of the HVO until the order came to attack the mostly Bosniak Bosnian army. Then they defected. One of them was a British mercenary, Norrie Phillips, 58, who said he had been employed by Zagreb to train Croat forces.” HVO officers told me they wanted to push the Bosniaks back to the middle of Bosnia, where they could be slaughtered by the Serbs,” he said. “I may be a mercenary, but I couldn’t be part of that. These people deserve better.” He crossed to the Bosniak side and began training them. Now Phillips is trying to escape what he sees as a doomed stand. The Bosnian army has no heavy weapons and little ammunition. The local commander, Arif Pashalic, recently asked a visitor, “Do you think they’re going to attack me again?” His dispirited silence left little room for doubt.