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The Human Toll


Story and Photos by Chester King Vega

Fatimah Heljic's Father-in-Law and Son

Zenica IN THE HEART OF BOSNIA, life in the former steel town of Zenica grinds along, heaving a collective sigh after three and a half years of war. Largely spared the years of bombardment, endless sieges and sniping that battered the bigger cities of Mostar and Sarajevo, Zenica is, nonetheless, a casualty to the conflict.

Zenica is known for its huge steel factory, belching toxins and a thick brown haze over the 150,000 residents of the third largest city in Bosnia. Ironically, thanks goes to the Serbs for clearing the air after a single night of bombardment silenced the facility. But some locals say a new kind of pollution has taken over Zenica -- the thousands of refugees from the rural hamlets and small towns of the eastern third of the country.

A Family Friend Many came from the U.N.-designated "safe havens" after they became quite unsafe. The exodus led westward and many found refuge in Zenica. The simple folk that "don't know how to act here," (the most often heard complaint) now live in every nook and cranny offered them. These are the Bosnians seen on CNN night after night. Those living in tents, boarding the backs of trucks, screaming with grief and usually forcing viewers to tune to something more palatable.

But if the locals complain of these refugees lowering the quality of life, the refugees point out that it is they who sent the most fathers and sons to the front to be maimed or killed. It is they who lost everything: their homes, crops, and way of life. They now depend on handouts from strangers.

Refugee Fatimah Heljic

Fatimah THE WAR FOUND FATIMAH IN 1995. SHE WAS 24 YEARS OLD. After three years of siege, Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serbs on July 11th. At Srebrenica was the biggest concentration of Muslims in eastern Bosnia. They had fled from villages and cities overrun by Serb firepower, and now they were packed in to an area the United Nations designated "safe haven." With no international force to protect them, and largely unarmed, the refugees were sitting ducks. Living in a small village near Srebrenica, Fatimah Heljic's family could only watch as Chetnik soldiers moved in for the kill.

First, they shot Fatimah's invalid mother, then took away her father. He has never been heard from. Fatimah's husband and two brothers also disappeared. Saha Ramic, Fatimah's sister, was taken to a camp where, she says, they "went through everything" — refugee code for having spent time at the women's prison camps that provided grim entertainment for Bosnian Serb soldiers. They released her after five days. Fatimah managed to make her way back to Srebrenica at about the time that the Serbs, completing their ethnic cleansing, ordered the expulsion of all Muslims from the area. Thousands of terrified families began walking westward, heading for Bosnian government territory.

Saha Ramic, Fatimah's Sister The remnants of Fatimah Heljic's family arrived in Zenica several weeks later, and along with 120 other refugees, they live cooped-up in a run-down elementary school within sight of the defunct steel factory. The school’s desks and chairs have been removed, but bunk beds and heaters turned the classrooms into hostel-style living quarters, providing minimal comfort to people accustomed to private homes, the out-of-doors, and independence.

Fatimah now spends her days stoned from the heavy doses of medication she takes to prevent thoughts of the war from invading her mind. She ignores the children who scream and shout outside in the hallway. She speaks softly to those around her, and with glazed eyes, sees little hope for the future.

"I don't believe I will ever go back home," she says. "I am a very nervous person, a very stressed person, I don't care about me." Fatimah says she lives only to care for her twenty month-old son and prays her husband is somehow alive. All the evidence suggests he is dead.

Fatimah's In-Law, Crying SrebrenicaBOSNIAN SERBS ROUNDED UP ALL THE MEN WHO COULDN'T FLEE SREBRENICA and forced them to march to prison camps to the northeast. Along the way, the United Nations Commission on War Crimes in the former Yugoslavia says, 8,000 defenseless prisoners were slaughtered over several days, their bodies dumped in mass graves. If they weren’t killed during the taking of Srebrenica, it would be reasonable to assume that her husband and two brothers were among those murdered later.

For now, there is nothing to do but sit and wait for something — anything — to happen. Saha knits sweaters for sale in town, earning a small income to augment donated German food parcels, while the rest of the family, a young niece and several in-laws, carry on as best they can in their 15 by 20-foot room. World Vision's Angels Mason and Fatimah Heljic Zenica authorities have put the refugees on notice that they intend to expel them soon so that the school can open again. The camp leader — an eighteen year-old girl who won a popular election — is herself a refugee, scrambling to make arrangements for the impending move and desperately negotiating for an extension.

These are minor worries to Fatimah who, at twenty-five, has seen and experienced far too much. Her life has been forever shattered and she knows things will never be as they were. "I don't believe I will ever go back home. I don't believe it will ever be better for us from Eastern Bosnia."

Additional resources
World Vision International Humanitarian Assistance
Serbs Massacre Muslims in Safe Area of Srebrenica The Washington Post
Faces of Rape Gallery from Photo Perspectives
Reports on Human Rights Abuses in Bosnia Intac Access
Reports on War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia CalTech's Bosnia Site
Possible Grave Sites Identified By US Intelligence The Christian Science Monitor
Europe's Worst Massacre Since the Holocaust The Christian Science Monitor

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Photos in this story are ©1996 by Chester King Vega. All Rights Reserved.