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Another Word for Horror: Srebrenica

  • Don Hill

Prague, July 10 (RFE/RL) -- A year ago tomorrow, Srebrenica entered the languages of the world alongside Katyn Forest, Lidice, and Auschwitz-Birkenau, as another synonym for horror.

The West was celebrating gleefully the fall of communism in 1991 when the 45-year-old Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia disintegrated into its component six republics. In Bosnia, rebel Serbs began fighting for independence for the portions of Bosnia they occupied. Over the next year, pictures and stories of atrocities committed by both Muslim and Serbs -- but mostly Serbs -- shocked the world.

Srebrenica, a town of 40,000 in the lush green wooded hills of eastern Bosnia near Sarajevo, came to international notice in the spring of 1993. The United Nations Security Council declared it a "safe area," one of six U.N. protectorates where refugees would be safe from attack. A 300-soldier Dutch peacekeeping battalion was stationed there.

The enclave soon proved to be anything but safe, the U.N. force impotent as protectors.

The last days of the Srebrenica "safe area" began in May 1995 when rebel Bosnian Serbs ignored a U.N. order to remove heavy weapons from around Sarajevo.

NATO aircraft atacked a Serb ammunition depot. Bosnian Serbs shelled Muslim safe areas in retaliation.

In the weeks that followed, the rebels mounted a siege on Srebrenica. On July 11, 1995, Srebrenica fell. The Dutch soliders, many held as hostages, watched in helpless agony as Serb rebels rounded up men and boys and marched them away. Of the estimated 8,000 taken away, few have been heard from since.

International institutions and news organizations and independent reporters soon carried tales, numbing in their intensity and scale, of torture, beatings, murder and rape.

Listen to just one, the story of Muslim farmer Hurem Suljic as told to American reporter Christine Spolar and reported in The Washington Post last October:

Suljic was cutting grass in a meadow near his home in Ornice, about 12 miles west of Srebrenice. Warned of "trouble in Srebrenice," he fled with his wife and children for the U.N. camp. He never made it down the refugee-clogged roads. On July 12, Suljic told Spolar, a Serb soldier took him away from his family. "You're a man," the soldier said. "Let's send the women and children out first."

Suljic said he was imprisoned with dozens of other civilian men in a nearby house. That evening, General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb forces, confronted the prisoners. The rebel leader said he needed 180 men for a prisoner exchange. He told Suljic and the others, they would not be hurt. Subsequently, their captors moved the Muslim men by bus and imprisoned them again with dozens of busloads of others in a warehouse.

In the middle of the night, Serb guards singled out and beat perhaps 50 of the prisoners, most of them to death.

The survivors were taken off in small groups over the next two days. Suljic said he and about 25 others were driven by truck along a road lined with bodies. Their Serb captors ordered the men out of the truck and into four ranks. Suljic saw General Mladic looking on. Suljic heard automatic gunfire. The men behind him slammed into him. He fell, buried by bodies. He heard screams and then individual shots. The screams stopped. He heard a voice say, "It's all finished."

And, after a time, there was silence. He called out softly, "Is anyone else alive here?" Suljic and two others crawled out from under the corpses and, in a harrowing trek, found their way through Serb territory to Bosnian government forces. Suljic later was taken to his brother's house in the hamlet of Banovici. There he found his wife and childen.

The international war crimes tribunal at The Hague on July 25, 1995, indicted General Mladic and the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic for war crimes. Last December, Bosnian peace accords earlier negotiated in Dayton, Ohio, were signed in Paris. The accords provide that Karadzic and Mladic may no longer hold office. And they call for the arrest of the two men and their extradition to the Hague for trial.

Both men remain in power and move with evident impunity about Serb-dominated areas of Bosnia. U.S. Admiral Leighton Smith, commanding officer of NATO's Implementation Force in Bosnia, has said repeatedly that his forces will not go out of their way to arrest Mladic and Karadzic.

This week in Cerska, 20 miles west of Srebrenica, a U.N. team of 20 forensic specialists is engaged in the grisly task of excavating what U.S. satellite photos indicate is a mass grave. The Cerska site is on an embankment bisected by a road like that described by the former Muslim prisoner, Suljic. It is the first of about 20 sites where investigators expect to recover the bodies of from 3,000 to 8,000 men.

Also this week, perhaps tomorrow, the tribunal in The Hague is expected to issue international arrest warrants for Karadzic and Mladic. The warrant will oblige any member nation of the United Nations to arrest those named.

In recent hearings in The Hague, Moslem soldiers who escaped the Srebrenica area and a handful of civilian advisors gave evidence that supported Suljic's narrative. Prosecutor Mark Harmon charged that, as he put it, "There can be no doubt that both Karadzic and Mladic could have stopped this killing whenever they wanted." Spokesmen for the Bosnian Serbs deny that there were atrocities. If bodies are found, they said, the deaths occurred in open fighting or resulted from mines or shelling.