Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jan. 29 (RFE/RL) - The first thing you notice when you walk into the squalid center for refugees from the former Muslim enclave of Srebrenica is that there are only women and children. Not one boy over the age of 14. Not one husband, not one father, not one grandfather.
The 109 women and children in this Tuzla school converted into a refugee center have been waiting for more than six months for word of their menfolk - men whom international human rights investigators believe were massacred by the Bosnian Serbs when they overran the UN-designated "safe area" of Srebrenica last January.
The women in the miserable Tuzla school tell stories that sound like something from the Holocaust. Fifteen men are missing from the immediate family of one woman. Another woman, 36-year-old Izeta Alihodzic, is missing 14 men: "My husband, and two (step)sons, including the sons of my sister. Nobody from my closest family, nobody came out of Srebrenica."
Srebrenica, a mainly-Muslim enclave surrounded by Bosnian-Serb territory in eastern Bosnia, was overrun by the Bosnian Serbs on July 11 last year. As the Bosnian Serbs closed in, most of the men of Srebrenica -an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 - took to the forests to try to walk to territory held by the Muslim-led Bosnian government. Of those who fled, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) counts 5,000 as still missing. The ICRC and UN investigators say that another 3,000 captured Muslim men, who were last seen by witnesses in the hands of Bosnian Serb soldiers, were probably executed by the Bosnian Serb army.
The Srebrenica women didn't see any of this, but they witnessed many other horrors, some too gruesome to repeat. Alihodzic said she hid in a forest and watched while Bosnian Serbs slaughtered Srebrenica Muslims by crushing them under tanks in a field.
Emina Omerovic, a 33-year-old mother of three, said that as Bosnian Serb soldiers closed in on Srebrenica last July, she fled to the town of Potocari where there was a UN base. UN peacekeepers guided her and other women, children and old people to factory buildings to spend the night. The next morning, she said, she saw a pile of at least 30 bodies with slit throats or no heads lying next to a fountain. This atrocity was well documented last summer by other survivors. All the Srebrenica women in the Tuzla school tell of seeing girls as young as 13 being taken away and evidently raped.
Despite this litany of horrors - which all the women say still give them nightmares - they can't bring themselves to believe that their husbands, fathers and sons are lying in those mass graves in eastern Bosnia visited last week by the United States' top human rights investigator, John Shattuck.
So they cling to any wild rumor that their men might still be alive. Omerovic is convinced that the men from Srebrenica are being held as prisoners in a Mosque in Srebrenica. She says: "I believe they are still alive." Other women have heard that the men escaped to Austria, but are unable to get in touch.
But Izeta Alihodzic admits the women may be deluding themselves by clinging to hope that their men are still alive. She says frankly: "We believe because that's the hope for life and for my children, but sometimes I lose hope and I am depressed."
Now that the NATO-led peace implementation force (IFOR) has moved into Tuzla, the women want two things: information about their menfolk and the right to go back home, although the Dayton Peace Accords put Srebrenica under Bosnian Serb control and they can't imagine living with Serbs ever again.
Alihodzic says: "I believe in IFOR. Maybe they can find somebody who is alive. The American troops will help."
The Association of Women of Srebrenica regularly turns to the ICRC for information. But Laurent Fellay, ICRC representative in Tuzla, says it has none to give them. He told RFE/RL: "We will not tell them, 'don't worry, your men are still alive, we are going to find them.' We cannot tell them either 'don't wait for them, they are all dead.' We don't really know what has happened."
Back in the Tuzla refugee center, Emina Omerovic insists that her husband, Suljo, is still alive. But occasionally her language betrays her true fears. She says quietly: "Sometimes I think it would be better to have died with him. It's very hard to live alone without any hope, without any information."