Why Are the Camps Still Full?

Grizzled and hollow-cheeked, Mehmet is 30 but looks about 50. That isn't surprising, given his ordeal. Mehmet is from Kozarac, a Muslim town in northern Bosnia that was "ethnically cleansed" by Serb forces last June. Mehmet says the Serbs looted his house, knocked out his front teeth with a pistol butt, locked him overnight in a bathroom with two mutilated corpses and then took him to the notorious Omarska prison camp. There, he says, he was forced to take his cousin to the camp's "House of Many Colors"-and made to watch as Serbs cut the man's throat. Mehmet is still too scared to reveal his last name. Now living in a dingy, crowded hostel run by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the Croatian town of Karlovac, he hopes to return to Kozarac. But first, he says, "I would like to go to another country and see my wife and daughter."

And that's the problem: what other country will take him? No one questions that survivors of the Bosnian Serbs' camps qualify as political refugees-they can easily meet international law's standard of a well-founded fear of persecution. TV images of the camps, broadcast last August, prompted Western outrage; politicians and diplomats, convening in London on Aug. 26-27 to discuss the crisis, vowed to rescue the inmates. But when it comes to backing that indignation with actual offers of asylum, the West hasn't been so forthcoming. Two months after the London conference, hundreds of camp survivors remain in limbo, while 10,000 men are still inside the camps. Some 3,000 are sleeping in a cattle barn in the Manjaca camp, according to a foreign relief official in Croatia.

Here is the chronology of failure: the ICRC is responsible for inspecting the camps, feeding prisoners and supervising eventual releases. On Oct. 1 the ICRC transferred some 1,600 men from the Trnopolje camp in northern Bosnia to the transit center in Karlovac, Croatia. (Britain separately took in 68 men, and the rump Yugoslav republic of Montenegro took 109.) This was meant as the first step toward rapid freedom and resettlement outside ex-Yugoslavia for the detainees still in Bosnian camps, 80 percent of whom are held by Serbs. Croatia, already with 700,000 refugees, agreed to receive the men only on the understanding that they swiftly be moved to third countries.

But as of Oct. 23, only about 100 of the 1,600 men had actually been resettled-in Norway. The United Nations Office of High Comissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had received firm asylum pledges for about 650 others. The backlog compelled the Red Cross to postpone its plans to bring 5,000 more prisoners out of Bosnia until Nov. 3-forcing thousands to spend at least an extra week at the very sites where many of them had been tormented and starved.

Livid over what they saw as Western hypocrisy, relief officials pointedly appealed for governments to open their doors. 'That shamed democratic countries into action. Last week the United States, which had offered only medical asylum for 100 critical cases, plus $6 million to help Croatia handle refugees, agreed to give asylum for 1,000 people. France offered 300 spaces; Holland, 200. The Swiss fetched 201 men they had been promising to take. Germany, which has already taken 50,000 refugees from former Yugoslavia, offered sanctuary for camp inmates, but didn't say how many.

The offers help, but not enough. The U.S. proposal, for example, counts both former prisoners and their families-and thus benefits only about 300 former inmates. It will take at least a month-for paperwork-before the men leave Karlovac for America. That's faster than usual, but, a U.N. official says, "for our purposes, it's very slow." Fred Isler, of the ICRC's New York mission, told NEWSWEEK the organization is still planning to bring prisoners out of Bosnia on Nov. 3 but that it may be able to transfer only 1,000 or 2,000 to Croatia because of the lingering backlog at Karlovac. That gives Croatia time to get testy. And Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic has hinted he might stop releases from his camps unless Muslims and Croats release their Serb prisoners first.

Bosnia's camp inmates are victims not only of the inevitable red tape but of Western Europe's hardening attitude toward the tide of immigrants from troubled Eastern Europe. The crisis also poses a moral dilemma: is asylum abroad for concentration-camp inmates tantamount to complicity in the Serbs' ethnic cleansing? Urged by U.S. Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, the London conference declared that "the primary objective" should be the inmates' return to their homes; Western policy is to encourage ethnically cleansed Bosnians to remain as close as possible to Bosnia, to make such a return more feasible. A State Department official compares the situation to that in northern Iraq: the West aided Kurds fleeing Saddam Hussein in next-door Turkey, then returned them to Kurdistan when it was safe.

Noble as that sounds, in practice such reasoning exemplifies the fecklessness that has characterized Western policy toward Bosnia. In Iraq the Kurds were protected by allied military power. But in northern Bosnia, the Serb army and paramilitary squads rule unchallenged by foreign intervention. "Cleansed" Muslims have no homes to return to: thousands of houses have been looted and torched. Kozarac, Mehmet's hometown, has been emptied of its 25,000 mostly Muslim people and reduced nearly to rubble. Every day hundreds flee Serb terror. Most head for areas of central Bosnia that used to be under relatively safe Muslim-Croat control. But recent Croat attacks on Muslim forces may end that option. Patrick Gasser, chief of the ICRC office in Split, Croatia, concedes that taking the camp inmates to third countries may in some academic sense assist ethnic cleansing, but adds: "Who is ready to reverse ethnic cleansing at this point? Our question is, 'Who will save lives?'"