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First Bosnian Refugee Children Come Home With AM-Bosnian-Fourth

July 5, 1994

PLOCE, Croatia (AP) _ Naser Ahmedpasic took his 7-year-old son Eno in his arms for the first time in a year and a half, studying him carefully for signs of change.

He brushed away a sweaty lock of hair and marveled at how big his little boy had grown.

″How much taller you are, how much more serious you are,″ he whispered. ″Did you miss us? You didn’t lose weight, thank God, you’re healthy.″

″Dad,″ replied Eno. ″Let’s go home now. Are they still shelling?″

Eno and almost 1,000 children who were evacuated to Libya in December 1992 returned to the Balkans on Monday in the first organized repatriation of Bosnian war refugees.

A few children, like Eno, saw their parents when the boat docked in this Croatian port. Most faced an eight-hour bus ride back home to central Bosnia before seeing their parents.

All must now face how the war has changed their families and their homes.

″I thought then that it was a good idea to save Eno from horrors of war,″ said Ahmedpasic, 35, of the decision to evacuate his son. ″Now I know that he will not have any complexes from the war - but he will have some complexes from being separated from us for such a long time.″

Millions of people have fled homes in Bosnia since war erupted in April 1992. An estimated 200,000 people are dead or missing. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there could be up to 40,000 children separated from their parents because of the war.

Late in 1992, the Bosnian government organized a convoy to Libya for 989 children from Zenica, Kakanj and Breza, towns north of Sarajevo. Thirty teachers and doctors went along. The mostly Muslim children were invited by the Libyan government to live at a center on the Mediterranean coast of the North African country.

A year and a half has passed and there still is no peace. But central Bosnia is calmer now that Croats and Muslims have agreed to form a federation, and parents wanted their children back.

″Parents insisted so much that we decided to help them,″ said Dzevad Hadzialijagic, a social worker from Zenica who organized the evacuation and return for the government, which provided buses to ferry the children home from Ploce.

Bosnian Serbs still hold about 70 percent of the republic. Many fear war could flare again if a new international peace plan fails.

″I am aware that we could maybe face the war again,″ said Ahmedpasic, who is taking Eno to Breza, just nine miles from Serb lines. ″But then I think: As long as we are together again, we could manage somehow.″

The danger of war makes humanitarian agencies reluctant to return refugees.

″Right now we are not doing organized repatriations because we feel that peace there is very fragile,″ said Sylvana Foa, UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva. ″But we can understand that people do want their children home, so we will give them an escort.″

About 30 relatives and parents saw the kids arrive Monday on a ship that left Libya on Friday. Separated by the water, then by bureaucracy, they nervously waved to one another and anticipated that first embrace.

″I am afraid to go home,″ said 11-year-old Lejla Pezer from Zenica. ″But my desire to see Mom and Dad again is stronger than fear.

″I talked to them for the last time in April and who knows what could have happened to them since. I pray God that they are still alive,″ she said.

Most children who were in Libya said they rarely heard from parents because communications were so bad in their homeland. If so, it was an occasional letter, or brief call via satellite or mobile phone.

″It was always quick conversation and we have always felt like strangers,″ said 14-year-old Azra Mahmutovic of Zenica. ″I longed to see their faces, to be with them for real.″

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