Serbia's Muslims Leave the Sandzak

Tensions are rising in the Sandzak, a predominantly Muslim region within Serbia. Many Muslims fear that ethnic cleansing awaits them too, and are leaving. Those who remain are being asked to help finance the Yugoslav Army.

Serbia's Muslims Leave the Sandzak

Tensions are rising in the Sandzak, a predominantly Muslim region within Serbia. Many Muslims fear that ethnic cleansing awaits them too, and are leaving. Those who remain are being asked to help finance the Yugoslav Army.

As war fever engulfs Serbia and NATO bombing fails to halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, Yugoslavia's Muslim minority fears that it may be next in line. Many have decided to take no chances, have packed up their belongings and are leaving for neighbouring states.


Since NATO launched its offensive, some 15,000 are believed to have left the Sandzak, a predominantly Muslim region which straddles Serbia and Montenegro and borders Bosnia on one side and Kosovo on the other. Most have headed for Sarajevo, though some have crossed into Montenegro and a handful are seeking refuge in Turkey.


According to the 1991 census, 420,000 people lived in the Sandzak - 278,000 in Serbia and 162,000 in Montenegro - of whom 54 per cent were Muslims. The current population is probably considerably lower because as many as 50,000 Muslims may have moved out during the Bosnian war.


Though the Sandzak has to date been spared NATO bombing, tensions in the province are high. Air raid sirens go off every day and after dusk the streets are eerily deserted. The Yugoslav Army has been calling up reservists, mobilising local Serbs and comandeering vehicles belonging to Muslims.


The Serbian authorities have staged patriotic rallies protesting the NATO bombing in the municipalities of Novi Pazar and Sjenica, both of which have Muslim majorities. Attendance at these rallies is compulsory for school children, irrespective of ethnic origin, and, according to media reports, more than 20,000 demonstrators turned out on each occasion.


The Yugoslav Army has also appealed to Muslim entrepreneurs to help finance the additional military and police units deployed in the province. Even though the factories and workshops are shut, more than 60,000 German marks was collected in just four days in Novi Pazar alone.


The Muslim entrepreneurs are contributing financially to the Serbian war effort in the hope that this will both protect them personally and their business interests. They have grown wealthy in the past decade by manufacturing bogus jeans, including Levi's, Versace and Bugle Boy, as well as shoes which mimic famous Italian designs but sell for a fraction of the price.


The Sandzak's garment and shoe industry has thrived in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the Serbian authorities. The Sandzak has paid Belgrade more tax than any other comparable region of Yugoslavia. And the country's pariah status has protected the entrepreneurs from law suits brought by the owners of the trademarks of the products they copy.


All this has not stopped Serbian authorities from cracking down on Muslim shop-keepers. Nine small businessmen from Novi Pazar have each been sentenced to 30 days in prison for "unauthorised raising of the prices of foodstuffs and other prohibited financial transaction".


Some 12,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees have themselves made their way to the Sandzak - 2,000 to the Serbian side and 10,000 to the Montenegrin. Most have been taken in by local Muslim families who are obliged to register the arrivals with the Red Cross and police. Failure to is punishable by one month in prison.


In the only incident of physical violence to date, a drunken reservist attacked a local restaurant owner. On this occasion, the military police intervened and, according to eye-witnesses, beat the soldier before escorting him to the local barracks.


The commander of the Yugoslav Army's Uzice corps, Colonel Gruica Davidovic, visited Novi Pazar last week and urged Muslims not to move out. He said that their security was guaranteed.


Some 800 Muslims are currently serving as conscripts in the Yugoslav Army, one of whom was among the ten Yugoslav soldiers killed in Pristina on the first day of the NATO offensive was a Muslim conscript.


The Sandzak, which takes its name from the Turkish word for military district, was administratively part of Bosnia within the Ottoman Empire until 1878. At the Congress of Berlin of that year, the Great Powers decided to leave the Sandzak within the Ottoman Empire, but allowed Austria-Hungary to deploy troops in part of the region. It was seized by Serbia and Montenegro in the first Balkan war of 1912.


Six municipalities of the Sandzak are in Serbia and five in Montenegro, all of which are ethnically mixed. Muslims form 2.7 per cent of the population in Serbia and 14.6 per cent in Montenegro, and 3.2 per cent overall in rump Yugoslavia.


Rasim Ljajic is founder and managing editor of Parlament, a bi-weekly newspaper in Novi Pazar, in the Sandzak.


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