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As Muslims Take Vares, Croats Flee to Serb Territory

November 4, 1993

BREZJAK, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Dragana Stupar thought she would be enjoying her first days of married life. Instead, the relentless march of violence across Bosnia has turned her world upside down.

On Thursday, the 20-year-old was a refugee dependent on the mercy of Serbs, who until recently were regarded as the worst of enemies. The last she knew of her would-be husband, Vito Dodik, 21, he and other Croat soldiers were guarding her retreat from Bosnian Muslims she had regarded as friends.

Her story is not new in Bosnia’s 19-month-old war, but it is new to the Vares area north of Sarajevo. Rising tensions in recent weeks erased an atmosphere of relative harmony in one of the few places it had still existed.

On Wednesday, the Bosnian army cracked Croat defenses around Vares and an estimated 15,000 civilians, including Stupar, fled.

″The majority of my friends were Muslims,″ Stupar said, sharing a piece of bread and jam with her 13-year-old future sister-in-law, Vedrana. ″But when I realized that my closest neighbor, with whom I shared my childhood, could’ve cut my throat ... It’s awful.″

Muslim villagers were massacred late last month in the village of Stupni Do north of Vares in an attack that U.N. officers blamed on Croat forces.

Croats who fled Vares apparently feared retribution, but U.N. officials said they had no evidence of intentional attacks on civilians.

Stupar and Dodik were to be married last Saturday in Vares, but tensions were already high and the wedding could not take place, Stupar said, fighting back tears.

A government offensive began Tuesday. Several thousand Croats headed east and south across the nearby Serb lines. Stupar was one of about 500 people who traveled in personal cars to Brezjak, a refugee camp deep inside the Serb-held territory about 25 miles southeast of Vares.

They did not know how long they would be at the camp, or where they would go.

An estimated 8,000 more people were about 18 miles away, on the front line between Bosnian Serb army and government troops, waiting for buses that lack fuel.

The buses likely will take them through Serb-held territories towards parts of Bosnia controlled by the Croats. Some probably will to to Croatia proper.

″Who are we?″ asked Azra Jovanovic, a Muslim woman married to a Serb. ″We don’t have a homeland any more.″ Her husband Ljubisa gently held her hand, trying to comfort her.

They were sitting around a wooden table in an open space, surrounded by white and dark green tents which can accomodate up to 2,000 people. The tents were set up by local Serbs and international humanitarian organizations last May, when the first Serb refugees fled fighting in central Bosnia.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina began in April 1992, when local Serbs, backed by the former Yugoslav army, rebelled against a vote by Muslims and Croats to secede from the former Yugoslav federation.

A fragile Muslim-Croat alliance broke down early this year and the two sides began fighting each other for territory.

Update hourly