Idle Warlords Find New Target: Refugee Aid
Jan. 30, 1996
BANOVICI, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Put out of work by peace, warlords in this small northern Bosnian town are trying out a new career: muscling in on humanitarian aid.
This weekend, arsonists torched a tent camp set up by a German aid group 12 miles southwest of Tuzla. Nine of the 12 tents were burned to the ground, leaving 160 refugees _ mostly women and children _ homeless.
Uwe Breininger, director of Deutsche Humanitaere Stiftung operations in Bosnia, blamed Muslim warlords who no longer have a cause.
He said his group might abandon its mission in Bosnia if authorities don't crack down on the gangsters and give the camp protection. He also asked police to secure DHS warehouses and offices.
``They have to help us help them,'' he said, standing amid piles of charred clothes and mattresses. ``It is now up to the Bosnian government to show that it is a democratic country.''
Breininger said local militiamen have threatened DHS workers, and have insisted on helping administer the aid, which Breininger says is their way of asking for a cut of the action.
Breininger would not specify the source of the threats, and no arrests have been made in the fire.
In addition to seeking ready cash, the warlords are anxious to maintain their influence now that the peace, brokered last fall in Dayton, Ohio, is in place.
The peace faces not only challenges from continuing ethnic tensions, but economic strains as well. Troops returning home have been told that the jobs they once held in factories and on farms leveled by the fighting are gone.
Bosnian leaders are hoping European economic assistance will help create jobs and kickstart the shattered economy _ which is operating at 5 percent of its pre-war capacity _ but economists don't expect to see signs of real recovery until the next decade.
Muscling in on refugee aid is nothing new in Bosnia. During the war, militia leaders in Serb-held Bosnia often demanded a cut of aid deliveries for their troops _ and occasionally simply commandeered vehicles.
But the Banovici tensions are the first known incident of warlords trying to get a cut of peacetime aid.
Early Saturday, three men were seen walking along the camp's perimeter. Minutes later, the tents were ablaze.
Ramiza Mujkic, 27, was asleep in the tent she and her three children shared with 17 others when she was awakened by screaming.
``When I realized there was a fire I panicked,'' said Mujkic, swaddling her 10-month-old son, Ramo. ``Children were crying. Women were shouting. The whole camp was running up and down.''
Breininger and five colleagues braved the flames with fire extinguishers, but ``there was nothing we could do,'' he said. ``Flames were tens of meters high.''
The aid group has rented rooms in neighboring houses for the homeless refugees, and estimated damage at $68,000. But aid workers said the damage suffered by the refugees runs deeper.
``We had these people laughing again after a long time,'' said Charles Minor.
Mujkic, weeping as she cradled her son, said the destruction of her tent was harder to bear than when her house was destroyed by Serbs during the war.
``I had just started to live a life again,'' she said.
The tent camp had been well organized and comfortable. Each family had a room of its own within the tents; each refugee was allocated six square yards of living space. In addition, the aid group had built a kitchen tent and a concrete house with bathrooms and showers.
On Monday, several men tried to repair what remained of the kitchen. Cans of food, vegetables and pans lay in soot. Children rummaged through debris trying to find their toys.
The refugees prayed that the warlords' tactics won't drive away the aid workers _ especially Breininger.
``If it wasn't for Uwe we would all die of cold and hunger,'' said Ramzija Halilovic, a 46-year-old mother of seven.
Mujkic asked what she would do without the camp. She knows nothing of the fate of her husband Enes, 30, who disappeared when Bosnian Serbs overran the eastern Muslim enclave of Srebrenica last July.
The Serbs burned what remained of her home after the shelling, and the fire Saturday destroyed what little she had left.
``I am lost once again,'' she said. ``The last picture I had of my Enes was destroyed in the fire. Hope and Uwe are all I have now.''