Now, A Second Front

The convoy of buses had been wandering the remote area of Bosnia for three days, looking for a safe road to Travnik, a town 45 miles northwest of Sarajevo. The passengers thought the Muslim-Croat alliance in Bosnia guaranteed some measure of security for their journey. They were wrong. In the village of Torine, they stopped to smoke cigarettes and chat with Muslim guerrillas and local residents. Suddenly, an artillery shell erupted in dust and shrapnel only 50 yards away, and everyone bolted for cover. Two more terrifying explosions followed. It was nothing out of the ordinary in Bosnia, except for one thing: this barrage came not from the Muslims' usual Serb antagonists, but from Croats-the Muslims' erstwhile allies. "Everything is crazy," muttered Zoran Uresic, 36, a passenger from the bus convoy. "Everything."

Bosnians see pathos as well as madness in the situation. As if the republic's Muslim-led multiethnic government didn't have enough trouble with the Serbs pounding Sarajevo, it now faces explosive new tensions with the powerful Croats. The Muslims are the most numerous group in Bosnia, but the weakest militarily: they barely control five towns in the republic. Serb and Croat forces tied to their respective governments in Belgrade and Zagreb have carved up the rest of the territory between them. Indeed, Zagreb appears bent on cementing its control in jointly administered Muslim-Croat areas of central Bosnia--even if it means cutting a deal with the hated Serbs.

The Bosnian government fears being sold out under the cloak of diplomacy. Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and President Dobrica Cosic of the Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia are negotiating in Geneva under European Community auspices about what appears to be a de facto Serb-Croat partition of Bosnia. President Alia Izetbegovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina has been stalling the talks. But the other two parties are racing to consolidate their positions before the onset of winter.

The Croats have been busy. In Mostar, a strategic southern Bosnian city of 110,000 that was recaptured in June from the Serbs by a joint Muslim-Croat force, Croat soldiers recently took control of two police buildings, declared a dusk-to-dawn curfew and banned Bosnian radio. Last week's fighting near Travnik was particularly ominous. It erupted just two days after Mate Boban, the leader of Tudjman's Croat nationalist party in Bosnia, announced that the jointly administered town should become part of his self-proclaimed Croatian state of "Herceg-Bosna." Poorly equipped Bosnian army troops in the area were already getting edgy over what they see as exorbitant fees charged by Croatian forces for getting supplies through to their troops and to civilians in places like Sarajevo. Boban denies the charge: "We haven't received a single dinar," he told NEWSWEEK. "The problem is, there are elements of the Muslim community who want to set up their own government." But Bosnian army troops say that Croat forces in Novi Travnik hijacked a shipment of fuel from Turkey that was supposed to go to the Bosnian army. A Muslim soldier was shot in the ensuing argument. Both sides threw up barricades and opened fire.

Publicly, Muslim Bosnian leaders blamed the fighting on a few hotheads and expressed hope that Muslims and Croats could negotiate a settlement before the hostilities spread. Izetbegovic attributed the violence to "radical forces." In the Balkans, however, the spilling of blood between former allies is seldom the prelude to compromise. In Bugojno, 17 miles southwest of Travnik, the basement of the Kalin Hotel has become a dank hospital for 15 Muslim soldiers and civilians with faces bloodied by Croat shrapnel and legs blown off by Croat land mines.

The prospect of battle between Croats and Muslims is welcome news for the Serbs in northern Bosnia, since it makes their job easier. They're busily destroying the last remnants of Croat and Muslim resistance before Canadian U.N. peacekeeping forces arrive to protect relief efforts for the winter. The ethnic cleansing of northern Bosnia is nearly complete, foreign relief workers say; a prewar Muslim population of 370,000 has been reduced to about 150,000, and an estimated 1,000 Muslims try to flee every day. Some 3,000 Muslims and Croats waiting to leave now live in a cluster of school buildings at Trnopolje, former site of an infamous Serb-run prison camp. Dozens sleep in each room; only three toilets serve the entire compound. Some refugees have set up flimsy lean-tos in the cold rain outside. Wisps of smoke from cooking fires mingle with the frigid air. There's little for people to do besides tell stories of how their villages were sacked by Serbs. One night in July, says Izmet, a carpenter, men in masks came to the village of Biscani, looted every non-Serb home and went on a killing spree, claiming at least 12 lives. "I saw them load the bodies on trucks," Izmet says.

To the east of Trnopolje, the town of Kotor Varos lies on ethnic cleansing's final frontier. Looters have sacked almost every shop, and the Croats' Roman Catholic church is a burned-out shell. Muslim gravediggers labor to bury two new dead near a mosque. As observers from the International Red Cross and local Roman Catholic priests look on, hundreds of mostly Croat fighters, together with some Muslims, hand in their assault rifles and shotguns to the Serb army. They and their families, 1,650 people in all, come from nearby villages that have been surrounded and shelled by Serb forces for weeks. In return for surrendering, the Serbs are about to let them become refugees. As they do with all people seeking to flee, Serb authorities collect $30 in hard currency from each passenger, a figure that means a $1,500 profit on each desperate busload, according to foreign relief workers in the region.

The refugees know they must walk the last few miles to Travnik, across the sniper-infested front line between Serb and Bosnian forces, but prefer that to the risks of facing Serb artillery at home. "Our war is finished," shrugs Stipo Karajica, 24, a Croat who had led a ragged platoon of fighters in the mountains for four months. The defenders of one Muslim village were still holding out; according to a local leader, the Muslims were not represented in the Croat-Serb talks and thus feared the Serbs would simply kill them once they laid down their arms.

With the Serbs mopping up in the north, the territorial squeeze on Bosnia and its beleaguered Muslim population is now nearly complete. Croatia itself, having already taken in 700,000 displaced people, is effectively sealed off to refugees. Without passage to Croatia, few will be able to reach Western Europe, which is growing nervous about the flow of immigrants from the troubled East. And last week's Croat-Muslim clashes mean even central Bosnia is no longer the relatively safe haven it once was. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees temporarily evacuated its personnel from the Travnik area in armored personnel carriers. British troops reconnoitering the area for a planned 3,200-man British U.N. relief-supply protection force also had to flee.

Their narrow escape shows how difficult it will be to protect Western relief convoys to Bosnia this winter. Aid workers worry that without military defense, food, medicine and blankets could be seized at gunpoint by desperate militia. In peacetime, the evening chill in Bosnia's air, the blazing red foliage of the mountains and the neat stacks of firewood in front of farmhouses might portend little more than the march of time and nature. This year, they augur a season when each gentle snowfall could mean more chaos and suffering.