By Roy Gutman  

The eighteen-car passenger train drew into the small station at Palic, northern Serbia, halted with a screech, then disgorged the eighteen hundred men, women, and children who had been confined to it for four days. They were inhabitants of the village of Kozluk in eastern Bosnia.

Late in June 1992, two Yugoslav Army tanks rolled into the village center and pointed menacingly at the comfortable houses there. Villagers were offered the choice: leave or have their village destroyed from under them. After signing away their property to Serb authorities, many walked across the nearby Drina bridge into neighboring Serbia, where border guards told them they could not return to Bosnia. Others boarded buses to the Serbian town of Samac, where they were transferred to the train. The government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic had provided the trains of the Yugoslav state railways with the intention of deporting the Kozluk residents to Austria, but so few had travel documents that Hungary refused to allow them transit through to Austria.

Individual or mass deportations are war crimes and crimes against humanity as defined at the Nuremberg Tribunals following World War II, and war crimes under the 1949 Geneva Conventions. If there is enormous loss of life, deportation may constitute genocide, namely the intent to kill or injure, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, according to legal scholar Alfred de Zayas of Rutgers University.

Deportation was not explicitly banned prior to World War II. The 1907 Hague Conventions omitted mention, because mass expulsions were “generally rejected as falling below the minimum standard of civilization and, therefore, not requiring express prohibition,” wrote legal scholar Georg Schwarzenberger.

Hitler’s Nazi regime had expelled over 100,000 French from Alsace-Lorraine into Vichy France, and over 1 million Poles from western parts of occupied Poland into the German-run “Government-General of Poland.” Germany also deported as many as 12 million non-Germans to work for the German war economy as compulsory labor.

The Nuremberg Tribunal repeatedly condemned the practice of “Germanizing” occupied or annexed territories, that is, transferring in part of the German population, as well as deporting civilians from one occupied region to another or to Germany. It stated that deportations into Germany for purposes of slave labor was “not only in defiance of well-established rules of international law, but in complete disregard of the elementary dictates of humanity.”

But the victorious Allies in States taken over by the Communists-Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, and East Germany-adopted Nazi practices and expelled some 15 million ethnic Germans to the West after World War II. An estimated 2 to 3 million died as a result.

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 explicitly forbids deportations in conditions of war. “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive.” Also forbidden is the common practice of the occupying power deporting or transferring parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. The convention allows the “total or partial evacuation” of any area where either “the security of the population or imperative military reasons” require, even outside the occupied territory, “when for material reasons it is impossible to avoid such displacement,” but the evacuated civilians must be returned to their homes “as soon as hostilities in the area have ceased.”

Iraq’s deportation of Kuwaitis into Iraq and resettlement of Iraqis in Kuwait was singled out for condemnation by the UN Security Council. Serb “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia from 1992-1995 also qualifies as a crime against humanity and a war crime. Israel’s deportation of Palestinians from occupied territories also violates the Geneva Conventions, in the view of the United States, the UN Security Council and General Assembly, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Israel says the convention has no legal bearing on its conduct in the territories but that it has voluntarily applied the “humanitarian provisions” of its own free will, although without specifying which provisions it has in mind.

The five thousand residents of Kozluk were among the most fortunate of all Bosnian Muslims, for most survived their expulsion. Many families finally made it to Austria where they lived as refugees, and the men returned to fight on the side of the Bosnian government. Their departure was never intended to be a “temporary evacuation.” As of mid-1998, none had returned to their homes in Kozluk.

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