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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Muslims Returning To Their Homes In Srebrenica (Part 1)

More than five years ago, Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN-declared safe haven in Srebrenica in an effort to establish an ethnically pure Serbian corridor in eastern Bosnia along the border with Yugoslavia. The Serbs rounded up the town's residents, sent the women and children by bus and truck to Tuzla, and then proceeded to massacre at least 7,000 Muslim men. In the first of two reports from Srebrenica, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports Muslim families have begun to return to Srebrenica from exile in the hope of rebuilding their lives.

Srebrenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- There are no road signs pointing the way to Srebrenica. A good map and a sense of direction should get the visitor through the market town of Bratunac and onto the road up through Potocari, where most of the mass killings occurred in July 1995. The mining and spa town of Srebrenica lies beyond, nestled at the end of a steep and narrow valley.

The material destruction in this Bosnian Serb-administered corner of eastern Bosnia is as bad as anywhere else in the war-damaged land. The landscape is pockmarked with houses without roofs, or even walls. In some places, nothing more than the foundations are left. Burned-out vehicles and other remains of the war still lie piled up by the roadside.

But it is the human losses that make Srebrenica different from every other community in Bosnia. Some 7,000 men from this town and surrounding communities have been missing and presumed dead since General Ratko Mladic's Bosnian Serb forces swept down the mountains and divided the men from the women and children. The men have not been seen alive since.

The town itself had a pre-war population of 7,000 -- mainly Muslims and Serbs, but also Croats, Montenegrins and Roma -- out of a total of 37,000 in the entire surrounding municipality. During the war, Srebrenica's population swelled to about 45,000, as both residents and displaced Muslims from elsewhere in eastern Bosnia crowded into the UN-declared safe haven.

Srebrenica's misfortune was its strategic importance to both the Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims. It is close both to the Drina river border with Serbia just over the hills to the east and to other largely Muslim towns in the area, including Zvornik, Bratunac, Zepa, Gorazde, Foca, and Visegrad.

In the outside world, the name Srebrenica has become synonymous with mass murder. But what happened here five-and-a-half years ago is rarely mentioned by the town's residents themselves -- in public, at least. In the words of one former resident who makes occasional visits: "Everyone here claims to have been absent when the killings happened and professes ignorance about the events and no one wants to talk about this matter."

But at a recent meeting designed to open a dialogue with exiled Srebrenica schoolchildren on a visit to their hometown, a Muslim member of the municipal council, Nesib Mandic, noted that 6,320 Srebrenica children have only one parent and 220 are orphans.

Srebrenica auto mechanic Mirsad Djozic, a 42-year-old Muslim, survived the entire war in the besieged town, living in constant hunger. When Srebrenica fell, Djozic succeeded in hiking over the mountains all the way to Tuzla. He says he hid in the woods for several weeks before making the 15-day trek, mostly at night, to freedom. He lived in exile in Vogosca near Sarajevo, but five months ago he returned to Srebrenica to rebuild his house, which he says the Serbs burned to the ground.

Djozic says he has found a wall of silence about the recent past.

"There is still no justice, but otherwise things are quite good here. There are no provocations. The police behave correctly to me. The authorities are really acting correctly. We haven't had any more problems so far."

Djozic says he does not intend to bring his family back until war-damaged school and health facilities are reconstructed. He says he has applied for assistance to rebuild his house but so far has received nothing.

The OSCE representative in Srebrenica, Gerard Keown, says about 100 gutted houses have been prepared for reconstruction. This year, 10 Muslim families have returned to Srebrenica and, with about 20 Muslim-owned homes reconstructed so far with international assistance, authorities expect another 10 families to be coming home soon.

Fata Husejnagic returned five months ago, together with her daughter, Sanela -- a university student -- and her 90-year-old mother, Mejra. Fata, who used to work at the local spa [Banja Guber], says Srebrenica was one of the most beautiful towns in Bosnia before the fighting erupted in early 1992. She fled with Sanela to Tuzla in April of that year, leaving behind her mother and two of her brothers.

The Serbs expelled Fata's mother after they overran the town three years later. But her two brothers, one of them a professor of biology and chemistry, were never heard from again and are presumed to be among the more than 7,000 Srebrenica men murdered by the Serbs. Fata says:

"I've taken my fate into my own hands. I have returned to my centuries-old hearth. This is the home of my father and mother, and I will remain here. I'm here with my mother and daughter. But my brothers stayed behind in 1995 in [nearby] Potocari, and I don't know what happened to them."

Fata says she was not afraid to return because she still has her family's property -- now a shell-damaged house and an overgrown garden. A displaced Serb, Sanja -- together with her parents, husband and baby son -- were living in the Husejnagic house when Fata returned. Sanja asked if they could stay, but Fata said 'no' and they moved elsewhere.

At first, Fata found communication with almost all the Serbs in Srebrenica difficult. Old friends turned their heads away, but Fata persisted in greeting them when she saw them and, after four days, they finally began returning her greetings. Neighbors she no longer even recognized came by with coffee and offers of sympathy and help.

"I'm really sorry for the people here in Srebrenica. I feel for them. My wish is, to the extent I can, to help my people who were forced from their homes. Believe me, they suffered over the past few years. I want to help them find peace as I have, thanks to good people, to find peace in Srebrenica. We cannot go on living apart as nations separated from each other. Everyone suffered. Believe me, we have to be together."

Fata says the fighting left no psyche un-scarred. As she puts it: "Everyone suffered psychologically from what happened, and we have to forgive."

"We have to recognize that this was war, not a party, and the war brought nothing good to anyone. We have to forgive but it is impossible to forget. I cannot forget that I had two brothers and a normal family."

Finding the way out of Srebrenica can be even harder than finding the way in. An attempt to take a short cut over the hills to Sarajevo recently led visiting reporters on a 90-kilometer detour, much of it on the unpaved mountain road that Mladic and his Bosnian Serb troops used in 1995 to storm Srebrenica.

The road passes by isolated and deserted burned-out homesteads, eventually giving way to inhabited Serb hamlets overlooking the Drina river valley. Ironically, while Bosnian Serb forces demolished all but one of the more than 200 mosques on Bosnian Serb-held territory, just cross the Drina in Serbia, the mosques and minarets of Muslim communities have survived the war intact, plainly visible from Bosnia.