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Refugees From Bihac Pocket Expect To Return Home Soon With AM-Yugoslavia, Bjt

November 22, 1994

BATNOGA, Croatia (AP) _ The hardship of life as refugees has only strengthened the resolve of 17,000 Muslims camping in squalor on an abandoned chicken farm.

The refugees fled to Croatia from northwestern Bosnia last August when the Bosnian government army routed troops loyal to their renegade leader, Fikret Abdic.

Abdic, a crafty businessman with an almost messianic influence, wants autonomy for the Bihac pocket of Bosnia. About a year ago he broke with Bosnia’s Muslim-led government in Sarajevo, and cut his own peace deal with Serbs and Croats.

For nearly four months, his followers have endured disease, filth and other deprivation rather than return to Bihac, despite U.N. urging and Bosnian government assurances they would be safe if they returned home. Meanwhile Abdic bided his time, stalling even after Bosnian Serbs began a campaign to get Bihac back.

In the last two weeks, however, Serbs have been closing in on government forces in Abdic’s former stronghold, Velika Kladusa. Shrewdly seizing the moment, Abdic has called 5,000 supporters back to defy the ethnic divisions of the war and once again fight alongside Bosnian Serbs. Most were recruited from the camp in Batnoga, a Serb-held village seven miles away.

If the women, children and elderly left behind are worried by the boom of artillery from across the border, they don’t show it. ″Each shell means our return home is closer,″ said 18-year-old Minka Hadzic.

The camp is a filthy cluster of abandoned barns and tents. There have been at least 2,000 cases of dysentery, hepatitis and intestinal disorders, according to doctors among the refugees.

The United Nations has suspended its twice weekly convoys of food and other supplies because of the refugees’ support for the Bihac campaign. Meals now consist mainly of a mixture of water, pasta and potatoes twice a day. The refugees call it ″kljukusa,″ or loosely translated: monotonous swill.

Still, their loyalty to Abdic appeared unshaken.

″People have always loved Abdic. He was the only one who offered us peace,″ said Mina Ajkic, 30, whose husband is among those who have left for the front. She said she has had no news of him since but is not worried.

After securing control of the entire Bihac region in August, Bosnia’s government launched a successful offensive against Bosnian Serb forces to the east and south, gaining hundreds of square miles.

But in a fierce counterattack, Bosnian Serbs, supported by Serb rebels in Croatia who control the border regions west and north of the Bihac pocket, have regained most of their losses.

The refugees depend on Abdic’s radio ″Velikaton″ for word of how the war is going. And according to the radio, ″we shall go home very soon,″ Hadzic said.

Five bodies were brought into the camp Saturday, coming from the direction of the battlefront. But local officials denied they were recent casualties of fighting.

Except to get water from nearby springs, the refugees can’t leave the camp, which is in a Serb-controlled region of Croatia.

Although Abdic supporters and Croatian Serbs are allied behind Bosnian Serbs, the Croatian Serbs are evidently uneasy about the large population of Muslims on their own turf. Serb militia checkpoints were located at entrances to the camp.

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