Exodus into no man's land

In this report from the Bosnian war in August 1992, Ed Vulliamy describes joining a convoy of Muslims bullied and intimidated from their homes in northern Bosnia by Serbian militiamen and police

Ed Vulliamy
9 April 2012

Originally published in The Guardian, 21st of August, 1992

The last 11 miles, on foot, were terrifying and extraordinary even by the standards of the drawn-out nightmare of the day. After being robbed at gunpoint of their cars by the last brutish line of Serbian irregulars, the battered line of some 1,600 Muslim refugees - the elderly, infirm and children among them - was sent trudging and hobbling by dead of night through a mountain battlefield towards what they had been told was the safety of their army's territory.

These dazed and comfortless people carried their babies or a few salvaged belongings, and hauled two invalids in wheelchairs, over a barricade of rocks flanked with mines that blocked the road and marked the limit of Serbian-held territory.

Fresh blood was sprayed across the asphalt in places. It was sticky underfoot, and there were worse things to step upon accidently - ripped flesh and human pieces, here and there, along the lane.

Slowly, they shuffled forward, an epic movement under the moonlight and the gunfire, moving with muffled stealth like a silent, phantom army.

An old man who could barely walk leaned on his daughter's arm, another hobbled on crutches, and a woman with a stoop held her hands to her face as she shuffled on as though they would shield her from the fighting. Some shed tears and muttered as they walked, but most wore faces fixed with disbelief and the inimitable, haunted stare of the person who flees from what is behind and fears what is ahead. As they struggled on, the shells crashed and the guns cracked around them.

Our convoy had been forced to bid farewell to their homes at midday, marshalled to order by the Serbian police, and told they were going to the Muslim town of Travnik, and thence to Split and Germany.

Now, 11 hours later, it was clear that no one on the other side had any idea we were coming, despite the casual assurances of the thugs who had sent us out past the last Serbian line into the perilous no man's land that no one should cross, saying: "We are doing a great thing for the Muslim people."

Mercifully, the Muslim and Croatian guns kept their peace against the bedraggled human snake that advanced, perhaps because of a T-shirt held up as a white flag. By 4am, passing through empty hamlets and clutches of armed men lurking in the darkness, they reached the so-called security of the Muslim/Croat-held village of Turbe, and were then taken by a hastily found bus to the town of Travnik, itself under regular and heavy shellfire, where they joined some 26,000 of their homeless compatriots.

As it turned out, we were lucky. We learned later that another convoy had passed along the same route earlier that night, similarly cast into no man's land. But this time, the Serbian snipers who had condemned them to this passage had moved around into the bushes that flanked the road and ambushed the defenceless procession.

In recent weeks, said the Muslim commander next day, 20 refugees had been killed in ambushes by the same irregulars who ushered them out on to the road. "They fire at and shell the people. And to save themselves, people run into the woods," Commander Haso Ribo said. Five days ago, he added, three people were taken off their bus at the last Serbian line and shot. Miraculously, none of our human stream was hurt. The fire remained concentrated on the village and the road further down. Perhaps the presence of journalists made a difference, or maybe the gunmen had merely met their quota of refugee executions for one night.

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has constructed what it calls a "moral deterrent", refusing to participate in the programme of ethnic cleansing in Serbian-held Bosnia. The Serbs' response has been to continue to harass and persecute the Muslim obstacle to their racially pure republic and to harvest those thus obliged to leave, shipping them out the back way into the Muslim zones of the central front, where there is no UNHCR, no blue helmet unit and barely any newspaper coverage.

Once penned into Travnik or Zenica, those in flight become targets for the artillery. The scale of this enforced backdoor exodus was hitherto unknown.

Skirting the city of Banja Luka, the convoy soon left the main road which leads towards the Bosnian-Muslim frontline, starting the climb into the mountain byroads. The car in front, Senad's, broke down, and Senad's face froze with panic when he thought he might be abandoned in what was becoming mountain militia heartland. In less than a minute he was hastily roped on to the car in front and towed up the hill.

The convoy's drivers kept their eyes on the road, trying not to meet the soldiers' triumphant stares. In the last Serbian town before the road degenerated into a dirt track gangs of irregulars were in charge, and they would stop the cars, interrogate the drivers, kick or spit.

Soon, no one had any idea where we were. The track became a dust path, closely lined by a thick pine forest. In the tunnel of trees the convoy threw up dust into a thick mist, through which one could see only the sharp rays of sunlight streaming down and the silhouettes of armed men.

In the brief stretches of open land, the meadows were splattered with soldiers alighting from trucks, howling more mirthful abuse, and by now it was late afternoon.

In the village of Vitovlje, they came running down to greet those who had abandoned their homes that morning, camouflage-clad men with guns and local teenagers alike. "Zaklacemo vas!" they shrieked - "Butcher them!" -using the word applied to the slaughter of animals. They ran their fingers across their throats.

The convoy pulled up outside the village to take stock. The three cars at its unstewarded rear had been stopped and taken. Their occupants, forced out with some of their bags, were billeted elsewhere.

Dusk was falling fast - fighting time. Another stop half a mile up the road and men were moving to and from the woods above the small meadows. The first shots rang out from a group by the road, fired just over the cars.

"Go back to Allah," screamed one of the Serbian irregulars.

We shunted along a valley floor in what was now deep dusk, and in the bushes next to the road heard the voices of men moving unseen in the shadows. Guns were cocking.

There was a cursory search for weapons and petrol at the next checkpoint, and the official police escort turned back, leaving the ramshackle procession in the hands of the outpost Serbian irregulars.

"They're taking cars," said the embarrassed reservist policeman before he left. "Tell them you are journalists."

The sight at the next and, it turned out, last of the checkpoints was pitiful. The itinerant people barely spoke, let alone argued, as the bands of armed men stopped each car in methodical succession, yanked out its occupants at gunpoint, made them open their boots and watched them take out what baggage they thought they could manage on foot.

Our car was spared, surprisingly, and we were cautiously elected, after loading up with a mother, a child and an elderly woman, to lead a section of the convoy.

The battle ahead was getting into gear and the first flashes lit the sky, but 1,600 souls knew that anything was better than turning back.

There followed almost two miles at a slow walking pace, the bags weighing people down or piled up on the roof of our car, or of one of the other six that for some reason, probably their antiquity, had made it through.

The first blood splattered across the tarmac was just short of the small mountain of rocks cutting the road - the "border". We were now two miles into no man's land, but our route ran parallel to the Serbs' mountaintop lines, and their shells were crashing into the village of Cosici, less than a quarter of a mile down into the valley, from which a salvo of machinegun fire answered every few minutes.

It took little examination to find out that the sides of the rocks were laid with mines, so the last cars were bid goodbye and the clamber began over the giant barricade.

News of the flow of people had reached the village of Turbe. The local Croat guards in the first hamlet were less than welcoming - hoodlums asking to see papers and demanding uselessly that people check in with their own army in town. The Croats and Muslims fight alongside each other but there is little love lost between them. Other Croats, however, joined in gallantly and began transporting the children, the old and the weary in their cars.

"Welcome to Travnik. My name is Emir," said the young man with the fresh and handsome face, cheerily. "I am with your army."

He was standing in the courtyard of a sandbagged building where a crowd was waiting its turn to board the bus. People gathered round Emir just to be near his pleasant, efficient manner and his Muslim army shoulder badge.

It was nearly 4am, more than 15 1/2 hours since leaving home, and he was the first sign that there might be some place in Travnik which they could call safety.

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