'What Will Comes of Us?'

updated 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1992 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Bosnia is a war without mercy. When old hatreds tore through the fragile fabric of what used to be Yugoslavia, neighbors became enemies in a conflict of appalling savagery. Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics, they all are caught up in a collective tragedy. Despite halfhearted efforts by Europe and the United States to rein in the ethnic hatred, the warring factions—Serbs, Croats and Muslims—have become only more bloodthirsty as they carve up the central republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Two weeks ago, George Kenney, the State Department's officer in charge of Yugoslavia, resigned in disgust over the United States' reluctance to find a way to halt the killing of innocents. As diplomats dawdle, husbands, fathers and brothers are dead, missing or inextricably engaged in the fighting. The women and children are alone, afraid, hungry and in constant fear for their lives. Even when families remain intact, they are never out of danger. Traveling to the Balkans with AmeriCares, a Connecticut-based relief agency, staff writer J.D. Podolsky and photographer Taro Yamasaki recorded tales from a land of mourning.

FOUR-YEAR-OLD OLYA RADULOVIC WOKE UP on the morning of July 11 yearning for the warmth and comfort of sunshine. For the previous 72 days she and her family had lived cramped in an underground shelter while their city, Mostar, 50 miles southwest of Sarajevo in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, had been shelled nonstop. But today the warning sirens were silent, and the sounds of war had ceased. The Serbian Army seemed to have stopped bombarding the city from its hilltop outposts. Olya and her sister Sanya, 2, sat down to breakfast in their first-floor apartment; their mother, Gordana, 37, had just finished ironing the cheery, flower-patterned cotton dresses they hadn't been able to wear in the dank shelter that lay under their modern stucco apartment building on the outskirts of the city. Olya, with Sanya tagging along, left her breakfast on the table and darted out to the front yard, now wildly overgrown with marigolds.

"They went off, yelling, 'Mommy, we're going to pick some flowers,' " says Gordana, reliving the moment in painful detail. "It was a very sunny, beautiful morning, and we were so happy to be out of the cellar. I went out after them to take down some wash I had just hung up on the terrace, and as I was collecting it, I called Olya over to help me. They were coming to me with flowers in their hands. That's when I heard a big explosion. The sound was so immense, all I could do was let out a scream. And then I saw both my daughters lying on the ground, side by side, covered in blood."

Smoke was everywhere. Gordana, wounded by shrapnel in her left arm, fell to the ground, dazed. As shells tore the earth all around, a neighbor rushed over to help. He saw Olya still breathing, scooped her up and rushed her to a hospital just a few miles away. She had suffered shrapnel wounds to the back and legs, perilously close to her spine and a major artery. If she had been rescued a moment or two later, doctors said, Olya would have died from loss of blood.

There was nothing anyone could do for her sister Sanya. A piece of shrapnel had sliced through her neck, killing her instantly. The shells fell for the next two hours, while her mutilated corpse lay in a pool of blood in the garden. Helpless neighbors, held back by the artillery fire, watched the little girl's blood curdle in the heal. Finally, someone dashed out and covered her with a sheet.

"All I felt was the pain in my heart. They were lying in front of me, and I couldn't do anything to help them," Gordana says, a month after the incident: "I can't forget that look in Sanya's eyes as she came to give me the flowers. I buried my child on my birthday. I know now whenever I remember my birthday, I'll ask, 'Oh, Lord, why do I have to live? Why didn't You take me?' "

Gordana and her family have forsaken their apartment. It is too heavily laden with painful and all-too-visible memories. A seven-foot-wide crater gapes where the fatal shell landed. Gordana, a Croat, her husband, Obrad, 40, a Serb lawyer, Olya, son Deya, 11, and daughter Maya, 10, have since lived with Gordana's parents in a two-bedroom apartment, modest but comfortable, in the relative safety of a six-story building in another neighborhood.

Yet even here the walls and stove are pockmarked by shrapnel from shells lobbed repeatedly into the city from the Serbian guerrillas' sanctuary on Mount Velez, a hill directly overlooking Mostar. Outside the building are the burned-out newsstands and kiosks of what was once one of the city's busiest avenues. From the distance comes the muffled sound of shelling.

Obrad, a powerful-looking man with a Cossack-like mustache, last saw Sanya that morning when he looked in on her in bed and rearranged the covers. "I am ashamed to be Serbian," he says as he rolls a cigarette. "These are cowards, not men, who did this."

"I can remember," says Gordana, "that right after the blast, Olya sat up for a moment and later she told me, 'Mommy, I saw Sanya close her eyes and lie still. I thought she was playing dead. So I closed my eyes and played too because I didn't want to die.' "

Olya does not know that her sister is dead. When she asks for her Sanya, Gordana and Obrad explain that the little one is away, visiting an aunt.

The children of Mostar still fish off rocks on the Neretva River. The 500-year-old city, however, is in ruins, 70 percent destroyed by massive shelling in an unsuccessful Serbian attempt to capture the strategic town. Half of Mostar's 120,000 inhabitants—a mix of Serbs, Muslims and Croats—have fled. Narrow cobblestone streets are now littered with debris and Kalashnikov rifle shells. At the city's battered 15th-century mosque, the minaret once used by muezzins to summon fellow Muslims to prayer has been toppled. From the branch of an ancient oak tree dangles a wire noose, a macabre reminder of a summary execution and divided loyalties. A Serbian coppersmith was hanged here by Serbian guerrillas—a lesson to other ethnic Serbs who remained loyal to Mostar, refusing to join the Serbian forces.

The local hospital has not been spared. An entire wall of the second-floor operating room was blown away by a recent explosion. In the wards white curtains separate the beds of Muslim and Serbian victims; for some, wounds may heal, but the hatred lingers. All over the hospital, children with deep scars engraved across their heads lie with blank stares and empty faces. Craniotomies, in which the skull is sliced open to relieve the pressure of massive head trauma, are common. In the airless basement lies Sanin, a 10-month-old Muslim child, both legs in casts, lacerated by shrapnel. Throughout there is a pungent odor, the ominous smell of many festering wounds. Children also undergo amputations, and a disproportionate number suffer from bullet wounds to the lower abdomen. According to doctors, free-lance snipers—both Serb and Croat—aim there deliberately in order to maim by disemboweling. "These are innocent children," says an AmeriCares pediatrician, Dr. Henry Harris. "I am seeing genocide."

Zehida Galashich, 33, sits with her 9-year-old son, Selvir, leaning against her chest as she tries to comprehend the death of her husband, Seid, 33, a Muslim field-worker. "He was beaten to death in his own house and for no other reason than his religion," she says, weeping, as flies swirl around her head. "They beat his head with a metal pipe...and then stuffed him into the cellar. I don't understand why it all happened. We always had good relations with the Serbs in our town."

Galashich and Selvir are luckier than most. They have reached the safety—and relative comfort—of a refugee camp in neighboring Croatia. Thousands of others who have fled their villages, however, remain trapped in Bosnia. In Posusje, a dusty town of 16,000 people two miles northwest of Mostar, a group of women and children huddle on pieces of cardboard under shady sycamore trees, trying to fend off the 106°F heat. They choose to live in the school yard because the air in the school itself is too oppressive. The musty stench—the accumulation of body odor from three months wear of the same clothing—is so pervasive a visitor's clothing quickly takes it on. Five hundred women and children have fled here, all refugees from villages in northern Bosnia, which are reportedly undergoing "ethnic cleansing"—the Serbian euphemism for ridding vast areas of non-Serbian peoples. They cluster around, buckets in hand, as what looks like a former gasoline truck hauls in brackish water. In no time, they gobble down Spam and bread, their only food.

Images of the Holocaust flash when Alema Karabasic, 47, recounts how she was separated from her husband, Salko, 46, and son, Sedo, 24. After the Serbs invaded her village of Kozarac, the family escaped to the woods and lived there for three months until they were rounded up by the enemy. "We were put together in a line of people," says Alema. "They took us to the city square and divided the women from the men. Then a soldier came and pointed his finger and took away my only son. There were no goodbyes. Then they took us, more than 100 people in each cargo wagon, on a train. It was hot, there was no food, no air, we were all pressed together. We were treated like cattle. Afterward, there was an old lady with a cane who couldn't walk anymore. They shot her right there."

Alema and her three daughters were eventually released and brought to Posusje. "At least here we have food," she says. But if doesn't make up for losing their homes. "We had everything," says her daughter Seydo, 28. "We had our own house. My father, my grandfather and those before him lived in that house. My Serb neighbors chose which houses to burn down, and I saw ours in ruins." Alema's husband and son-in-law are in different concentration camps. No one knows where her only son is.

Ismeta Hamilic, 37, cannot bear to think of the death of her husband. The Serbian Army entered her small village of Biscana and began routinely rounding up groups of 10 men and killing them with a machine gun. She and Seyfo, 40, took refuge in their cellar with their five children, but before long the soldiers kicked the door in and Seyfo was dragged out. While she stayed in the cellar, sheltering her children with her body, she heard shots. Hours later, her 7-year-old son, Asmir, came running up, yelling that he had found his father lying in a heap with his grandfather and uncle in the backyard. They were all dead.

"The Serbs said to us, 'Go away and don't let our eyes see you again,' " says Ismeta. "I made a while flag from a sheet, and I walked with my children through the streets, with nothing. We had to look straight ahead because there were dead babies lying on both sides of the street."

They walked more than 15 miles to the Croatian-controlled town of Travnik. "He was a simple worker," she says of her husband. "He didn't do anything. He didn't even have enough money to feed our five children. What could he have ever done to them? Now we have to endure." She says bitterly, "Sometimes I think it's easier for the dead because they don't have to go from camp to camp. They are lying dead in holes in the fields, and at least they don't know what's going on anymore.... I only had time to throw some sand on [Seyfo]. I can't think about him anymore."

High above the pristine waters of the Neretva River along a tree-shaded avenue lined with Mostar's wealthiest homes sits the Liska Park. Its winding gravel paths were once lovers' lanes for Mostar's youth, but today they have become makeshift graveyards. Mounds of fresh soil lie side by side. In close-packed rows are Muslim graves, accented by green teardrop tombstones with a red crescent: Serbian graves, with three-foot-high while crosses; and Croatian graves, with plain wooden crosses.

Close by, near a park bench, are three large rectangular holes waiting to be filled. The fighting goes on, in spite of a so-called peace agreement reached in London two weeks ago. Serb artillery still rains down on Mostar nightly in what may be a new attempt to take the city. Clad in black, Mate Prcic, a widow at 28, makes her way to the grave where candles are burning for her husband, Podvel, 26. They last saw each other May 18. He died two months later at the front, at that time the Neretva River in the center of Mostar. "I'm leaving town," says Prcic, trembling while she looks toward her 2-year-old daughter, Matea, waiting in a car. "It is not safe here. This is the last time I'll see his grave."

In This same cemetery lies Sanya, Olya's sister, Gordana and Obrad's lost 2-year-old. Her grave, beneath a white cross, is kept up by strangers who periodically come by to remove dead flowers and straighten the crosses.

Sanya was buried the day after she died. She received no formal funeral. With the city's electricity shut off, her body could not be refrigerated long enough for her parents to find an Eastern Orthodox priest to recite the liturgy. Shells were falling that afternoon, so the 15-minute "service" ' extemporized by her family was rushed. But her father will never forget it. Obrad recalls how, while standing over the grave, he asked, "Daughter, please forgive me for not buying you that red stuffed rabbit that you wanted. I meant to, but I couldn't get around to it." Then as they lowered her into the ground, he looked toward the distant mountains and shouted, "Why don't you animals come down here? Why did you have to kill my daughter?"

Before leaving, he placed on Sanya's grave the same marigolds that had lured her to her death. Raised a Communist, he had to ask his wife to say the prayers for him. "I hadn't learned how to pray," he says, sobbing. "My parents never taught me. But I ask for you, my daughter, that the earth is soft for you."

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