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Source: 1994 N.Y. Times News Service 11-12-94

For Bosnia Muslims, Chicken Coops

by Roger Cohen

CETINGRAD, Croatia: Where 60,000 chickens once clucked and fed, thousands of Bosnia's ragged dispossessed now mingle in the mud, lugging containers of water and bundles of soiled clothing through a landscape awash with sewage and misery.

They are Bosnian Muslims, these children playing amid stinking piles of garbage, these women crouched in vast chicken coops stirring soup over makeshift fires, these men chopping firewood in the gloom, yet the distinction between their lot and that of animals is not easy to discern.

Of all the horrors of the 31-month-old Bosnian war, the Batnoga refugee camp in an enormous converted chicken farm is one of the strangest and most sinister. In the midst of Europe, less than 300 miles from Venice or Vienna, it suggests the deprivation of Africa. And in its origins, it conveys the degree of madness now attained by the war.

For the 17,000 Muslims inhabiting this shadowy farm conceived for animals have fled the Muslim-led army of the Bosnian government.

Whether they did so out of rational fear, or because they were obliged to do so by the rebel Muslim leader they support, is a question overshadowed by the squalor of their plight.

``For me, this is the shame of Europe,'' said Wycliffe Songwa, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees official from Kenya who is striving to conjure some level of order and comfort from the morass.
``If I was back in Africa, I would understand, because the poverty is such that these situations arise. But in the middle of Europe, this is unacceptable.''

In each of 24 fetid sheds where chickens were once fattened, about 750 refugees now live. By the shifting light of candles or small stoves, some play cards, some stir caldrons of cabbage, some lie slumped on mattresses provided by the United Nations.

Babies scream and children play while old men stare vacantly out across a shadowy, seething expanse that is suggestive of the netherworld.

The camp began to take shape three months ago when the V Corps of the Bosnian army, based in Bihac in northwestern Bosnia, overran the renegade forces of Fikret Abdic, a Muslim businessman and politician opposed to President Alija Izetbegovic and more interested in commerce than war.

Whether Abdic, who was convicted of fraud by the Yugoslav authorities in the 1980s, is a tyrant bent only on his own enrichment or a benevolent advocate of business and trade as a path to peace remains a bitter point of contention.

What seems clear, however, is that Abdic commands fierce loyalty from his many followers, who call him ``Babo,'' or Grandpa, and fled with him out of the Bihac pocket into this bleak area of Croatia under the control of Serbs.

In all, U.N. officials estimate that about 30,000 Muslims took flight from the Bosnian government army, with the largest concentration of them now housed in the chicken farm owned by Abdic's Agrokomerc food conglomerate.

Abdic himself lives in nearby Vojnic, where he has started a radio station supported by Serbs who see him as a useful ally against Bosnia's Muslim president, Izetbegovic.

``We want peace, just peace we do not want to make war,'' said Hajrudin Hodzic, a schoolteacher who fled with his wife, Suada, and their three-month-old son, Alan, when the Bosnian army took Abdic's former stronghold of Velika Kladusa.

``At first we believed Izetbegovic when he said he wanted a better life for us,'' he said. ``But then we saw he wanted an Islamic state for Muslims alone, and that is not the life we want. We support Abdic because he wants to open things up.''

Hodzic and his family share a small tent with Sabira Beganovic, another Muslim refugee who has a two-month-old son. Her husband, captured by the V Corps last August, has never seen the boy. She believes that he is now being forced to work as a cook.

``With Izetbegovic,'' she said, ``we can never return home.''
The Bosnian authorities, who have invited all the refugees to return home and offered all men a six-month reprieve from military duty, say most of these Abdic supporters have been brainwashed or forced into obedience. Their argument is partly supported by U.N. officials.

``We feel there is a lot of pressure and propaganda from Abdic that effectively compels these people to stay in the chicken farm,'' said Mieke Bos, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees official who oversees this area. ``Without a pass signed by Abdic, they cannot return.''

But she added that soldiers from the V Corps, commanded by Atif Dudakovic, had been acting in a way that made return unattractive, moving into vacated apartments and stealing furniture.

Songwa, the U.N. official at the camp, estimated that 75 percent of people at the chicken farm would leave and return home if Abdic allowed them to do so.

``People are pretty confined,'' he said.
Sead Kajtazovic, Abdic's chief representative at the Batnoga camp, fiercely contested that view, challenging Songwa to find a single Muslim refugee who would return to Bosnia in the current circumstances.
``If you can find one person who would return to that Arab state in the making, I would join Izetbegovic's army today,'' he declared.

Asked if Abdic and his followers were not traitors to the tens of thousands of Muslims killed and hundreds of thousands evicted from their homes in Bosnia by the Serbs, Kajtazovic replied: ``Our solidarity with the Muslims killed is to end the war. What solidarity is it to have more people die? Mothers cannot produce Bosnians as fast as Izetbegovic is killing them.''

Recently the V Corps has come under pressure from the Bosnian Serbs, who have been retaking land on the edge of the Bihac pocket that they had lost to the Bosnian army in October.

Nonetheless, interviews with a dozen inhabitants of the chicken farm revealed no readiness to return home while the army controls the pocket.

One woman, Nurija Milkovic, said she had tried staying in her home in Velika Kladusa with her three children for three weeks after the Bosnian army took over in August. But the harassment was too great.
``Every two hours,'' she said, ``soldiers were knocking on my door. ``They wanted to know where my husband was. They were taking my jewelry. It was unbearable.''

Prospects for the refugees, who are among two million now displaced by the Bosnian war, appear bleak. Winter is coming. The Croatian government, already coping with 380,000 refugees, has refused to accept these Muslims. Western Europe, wary of immigrants while unemployment remains high, has also closed its doors.

``Everyone now has a wood stove, a blanket and a mattress,'' said Songwa, who works with a small team of assistants. ``We are working on winterization of the chicken sheds.''