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Frightened, Abandoned, Stateless: Rebel Muslims Say They Can’t Return

August 23, 1995

VOJNIC, Croatia (AP) _ Amid the confusion of Serbs fleeing Croats and Croats and Muslims fleeing Serbs, Safet Kantarevic is part of a little-told story in the Balkan wars: Muslims running in fear from Muslims.

The 26-year-old Kantarevic, along with his wife, child, parents and four brothers, left their home in Velika Kladusa two weeks ago as troops of the Muslim-led Bosnian army retook the northwestern Bosnian city.

They joined more than 20,000 Muslims, the followers of warlord Fikret Abdic, whose rebellion against the Sarajevo government came to abrupt end earlier this month.

They had wanted to go northward, to Zagreb, and then on to Western Europe. But Croatia has closed the road _ claiming it’s already overburdened with 190,000 Bosnian refugees _ and has signed an agreement with the Bosnian government on their repatriation.

``I would rather die then go back to government-controlled Bosnia,″ Kantarevic said while helping his brothers put up a hut in a muddy field outside Vojnic, 30 miles south of Zagreb. ``Of course I’m afraid to go back. We’ve been fighting the (government’s) 5th Corps, and if I get back, they’ll kill me.″

A shared language and the vague ties of being called Muslim by the rest of the world seem the only common links between Abdic’s followers and the government.

``I’m a Muslim and I’m not ashamed of it. But I don’t want to fight Serbs. I don’t want to go to war. I don’t want my children to learn the Koran and Arabic,″ Kantarevic said, criticizing the Bosnian government for trying to strengthen Muslim identity.

When the Bosnian war erupted in April 1992, Abdic made deals with all sides _ Serbs and Croats, Muslims and the United Nations _ to keep the northwest region known as the ``Bihac pocket″ free of conflict and relatively well-supplied. The traditionally good relations between Muslims and Serbs in the predominantly Muslim area served his cause.

His near-messianic hold on his followers relies partly on his brand of trickle-down economics, with many locals owing any wealth and status directly to the charismatic boss and leader.

To Kantarevic and his brethren, Abdic is simply ``Babo,″ or father, a paternal protector from the worst ravages of war, a provider of jobs and relative prosperity in peacetime.

``I trust Babo, he’s my government,″ Kantarevic said.

To the governments in Sarajevo and Zagreb, Abdic is a traitor, a maverick commander and politician, a corrupt one-time factory manager who always ran the Bihac pocket like a fiefdom.

Now, with Abdic reported under house arrest in Zagreb, and his most fervent followers stranded along a five-mile stretch of road, the future for Abdic’s people looks bleak.

``They’re burning our houses, looting and raping,″ said Besima Hustic, in her 60s, of the Bosnian army soldiers. ``My 21-year-old son, Ahmed, was killed by their sniper in (the village of) Todorovo on Nov. 21, 1993. How can I live with those who murdered my son?″

Reuf Rizic told a story how his 25-year-old son, fighting alongside Abdic, was killed by his neighbor, a government army soldier.

``The neighbors’ son, who was on the other side, in the 5th Corps ... called him a traitor, and shot him,″ Rizic said through tears, pulling Ahmed’s photo from his wallet.

U.N. spokesman Chris Gunness said the refugees had reported physical intimidation and in some cases sexual harassment by the victorious Bosnian army 5th Corps.

Soon after the government units marched into almost deserted Velika Kladusa, the United Nations reported that houses were being burned down in the area.

``There is a pattern which consistently emerges of concern and anxiety about returning,″ Gunness said. ``It would be my view that these are well grounded fears.″

Kantarevic said he didn’t care about his house, four tractors and property.

``I don’t care for all the wealth of this world. But I do care for what’s most precious to me _ my family,″ he said. ``If I go back, they’ll sure take revenge on me and on all of us.″

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