The Deadly `Ethnic Cleansing' Of A Bosnian Muslim City
KOZARAC, Bosnia - At a bend in the road just past the Kozarac town sawmill, a young Serb named Goran Borovice stood on a second-story balcony, watching as columns of bloodied and dazed Muslim refugees streamed by below.
It was May 26, the third and final day of the "ethnic cleansing" of Kozarac, a previously prosperous Slavic Muslim enclave of 25,000 whose misfortune it was to lie inside a newly declared "ethnically pure" Bosnian Serb state. That morning, victorious Serb fighters had moved tanks and loudspeakers to the woods on the edge of town:
"Muslims get out! Muslims get out!" the Serb command blared over and over, according to witnesses. "Surrender and everyone will be safe!"
From the forest, thousands of Muslim civilians, numb with fear after 37 continuous hours of shelling, began to stumble toward the road in columns, carrying white flags. As they moved, witnesses said, shells and mortars continued to slam into the road, splintering bones and shearing off limbs.
Just ahead, however, on the balcony, Borovice and Serb forces were carrying out a far more calculated part of the attack, a secret and until now little-publicized operation.
Borovice's job, according to numerous witnesses, was to help identify prominent citizens of Kozarac for arrest, detention and eventual elimination. As he pointed and shouted the names of those he recognized, Serb soldiers and police stepped forward and began to cull the town's Muslim elite.
Those taken that morning and in the days to come included judges, Muslim deputies to the Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, newly deputized Muslim police officers, restaurant owners, entrepreneurs, factory managers and local sports heroes.
"They were pulling out private entrepreneurs and educated people, anyone who could ever organize any Muslim life in Kozarac again," said Emir Kevljanin, 42, an accountant who was in the crowd that day.
Some of the men were shot on the spot. Others were taken into the house or an adjacent bus shelter where their throats were slit. The sink in the house was filled with blood, according to a 60-year-old man who said he saw 10 corpses slumped there that day. Others were killed as they were loaded onto buses bound for detention camps.
This is the story of what happened in Kozarac, one of the first of dozens of Muslim-populated areas in northwest Bosnia to undergo "ethnic cleansing" by Bosnian Serb forces. Interviews with 18 former Kozarac officials and refugees in camps in Bosnia and Croatia, as well as Western aid officials, diplomats and Serbian police, show that in Kozarac, the Muslims were driven out by a carefully planned and coordinated attack designed not only to remove the population, but to liquidate its leaders so the "cleansing" would be irreversible.
The main attack on Kozarac lasted three days, and an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people died when Serb tanks surrounded the town and opened fire, according to the most conservative estimates of the town's former Muslim leaders and a senior Western relief official. The "eliticide" of Kozarac, in contrast, was not carried out all at once. Some of the Kozarac leadership were tortured and killed after they got to the camps, while others, refugees said, were dragged out of the camps by soldiers and not seen again.
The attack began with an overnight coup by militant Serbs in the nearby Muslim-dominated city of Prijedor on April 30. That takeover toppled Prijedor's democratically elected Muslim mayor and police chief, replacing them with militant Serb nationalists.
The coup and the attack on Kozarac 25 days later, refugee accounts strongly suggest, were part of a calculated plan to purge a large Muslim population whose voting habits in the new, democratic Bosnia meant the end of Serb domination entrenched during four decades of communism.
"Kozarac was destroyed systematically. It wasn't just some guys running amok," said a Western diplomat in the Serb capital, Belgrade. "It means responsibility lies with the Serb higher-ups."
The destruction was carried out as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and other Serb officials claimed there was no such thing as "ethnic cleansing."
More recently, Bosnian Serb leaders have alternately portrayed the destruction of Kozarac as a terror campaign waged by "uncontrollable Serb elements" or a legitimate military campaign against heavily armed Muslim terrorists.
"We tried very hard to live with them as human beings and brothers, but they thought they could create an Islamic state," regional Serbian police chief Stojan Zjupljanin said.
The destruction of the town is clearly visible from the highway - mile after mile of scorched buildings, collapsed red-tile roofs, and houses reduced to rubble.
But six months after the attack, the ruins of Kozarac are still sealed, guarded by heavily armed and hostile Serb soldiers. Militant Serb authorities in Prijedor do not allow interviews, visitors or photographs. Most of the town's residents are dead or have dispersed in the great Slavic Muslim diaspora caused by the Bosnian war.
A brief, unauthorized visit to the town revealed that every house, no matter its condition, is marked with the same color-coded symbol: an "X" inside a circle. Yellow means "to be inhabited," a soldier explained. Blue means "rebuild." And red means "destroy."
The Serb coup in Prijedor on April 30 took just hours, but the trouble had been brewing for at least two years.
It began in November 1990, during Bosnia's first democratic elections. Until then, Prijedor, 6 miles from Kozarac and the second-largest city in northwest Bosnia (population 112,000), had been ruled by Serb communists, despite the fact that Serbs made up only 42 percent of the city's population and an even lower percentage of the area that included Kozarac and surrounding Muslim villages.
In the 1990 elections, Prijedor's militant Serb leaders watched unhappily as votes from newly enfranchised Muslims helped send two new Muslim legislators to the Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, as well as give Prijedor a new Muslim police chief and mayor. In addition, dozens of Muslim police recruits were hired to offset a historical over-representation of Serbs on the regional police force.
In March this year, Serb dominance was further challenged when Bosnian authorities in Sarajevo, unwilling to be absorbed into a Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia, held a referendum on independence. Muslims and Croats voted overwhelmingly to separate from Yugoslavia.
In April, Karadzic declared that Serbs would not share power with Croats and Muslims in Bosnia, and declared himself leader of a new independent, ethnically pure Bosnian Serb state.
In Prijedor, 100 miles northwest of Sarajevo, militant Serb authorities eagerly took up Karadzic's demands.
Early on April 30, Serb officials in Prijedor carried out a lightning coup. The Muslim mayor and police chief were jailed. Hundreds of the new Muslim police officers were relieved of their weapons and sent home. Muslim employees in schools and factories were fired.
Serb roadblocks went up all over the city. Snipers were positioned on rooftops. A Serb flag was raised in front of the police station. Inside, there was an atmosphere of celebration.
On May 9, the new Serb authorities in Prijedor gave Kozarac leaders seven days to sign a loyalty oath to the Bosnian Serb republic or be regarded a paramilitary terrorist organization, Kozarac officials said.
In interviews last month, several former Muslim officials and police, including a member of the hastily formed Kozarac "crisis committee," provided the following account of what happened next.
The next week, they said, the crisis committee issued three appeals for a meeting with Prijedor's Serb leaders. All were rejected.
The town began organizing an amateurish defense force, and counting a small cache of homemade and World War II-era pistols, rifles and machine guns.
On May 14, phone service was cut off and the town was sealed off, refugees said.
Two days later, a Serb tank arrived in Kozarac. On the highway, large Serb army convoys could be seen moving up and down the road.
On Sunday morning, May 24, Radio Prijedor began playing Serbian nationalist songs. At 1 p.m., the town's residents were given a final warning - evacuate by 6 p.m. or the town would be leveled.
At 2:12, by refugee accounts, shelling began from 12 directions. Up to 15 shells fell a minute.
At 3:45, Radio Prijedor said Serb forces would halt shelling for a half-hour to give Kozarac a chance to turn in its weapons.
"It was a trick, to get us to come outside," said one refugee.
The shelling resumed in 15 minutes, refugees and town officials said.
By Monday morning, the town's 15,000 residents were in flight. But the shelling continued. Entire families were killed as shells slammed into tractor and car convoys trying to leave. Most of the estimated 2,500 to 3,000 deaths occurred on that day, refugees said.
By Tuesday morning, May 26, the town's paltry resistance - poorly armed men at flimsy barricades - crumbled. As loudspeakers blared surrender orders, the first groups of civilians crept from the woods, headed toward the town soccer field where they had been told to gather.
Serb radio promised that all those who left the "zone of operation" would be accommodated in Prijedor until the area had been "cleansed of extremist elements."
the shelling continued. On the main street, a shell hit a large group of people near the mosque.
At the soccer field, 4,000 people had gathered, and families were being forcibly separated and loaded onto buses.
"They gave us 10 minutes to get to the soccer field. We had to walk over bodies to get there. Women were screaming. There was blood everywhere," said Sefika Demirovic, 59, whose husband and sons were taken away.
At the balcony, the culling was in progress. Borovice was named as the man standing on the balcony, and as one of those making the selection of elite Muslims, by Kevljanin and a refugee who asked to be identified only by his initials, I.M. The witnesses said Borovice was a member of one of the few Serb families in Kozarac. The witnesses said they did not know where Borovice is now.
The looting and killing in Kozarac and surrounding villages continued for weeks after the main attack, through June and July, refugees and town officials said. By then, destruction was more arbitrary and chaotic, apparently relegated to lower-ranking Serb police, army and civilians.
Some of the soldiers used metal detectors to search gardens and courtyards for buried valuables before blowing up and burning houses.
In September, Kozarac refugees now in Croatia said they heard Radio Prijedor announce that Serbs were now a majority in the region, and were ready to hold any referendums required.
By mid-October, a Serb translator and a Serb soldier at the first roadblock in Kozarac held the following laconic conversation:
"How far can we go?" the translator asked. "Is it `clean?' "
"Yeah, no problem," replied the soldier. "All clean."