21 July 1995
Just across the Drina river from the sleepy Serbian town of Ljubovija, a slaughter is said to be taking place: possibly the biggest mass execution of Muslim prisoners by the Bosnian Serbs in more than three years of war.
According to residents of the Bosnian Serb-controlled town of Bratunac and Serbs from Serbia who have visited the area, as many as 4,000 captured Muslim men from Srebrenica have been killed by Bosnian Serbs driven to brutality by a desire for vengeance.
One Serb woman who claimed to have seen the main execution site, a playground in Bratunac, spoke of a field “knee-deep in blood”. And the killings are said to be continuing. “It is terrible what they are doing. If I could, I would kill the people of Bratunac for this,” the woman said.
Foreign journalists and aid workers have so far been prevented from visiting Bosnian Serb detention centres to determine the fate of the thousands of Muslim prisoners of war taken from Srebrenica last week.
Bosnian Serb police strictly control the border with orders to keep out prying foreigners. But they have been unable to stop whispers of the ongoing slaughter from crossing the Drina bridges into Serbia proper.
On Tuesday, two young women crossed the old iron bridge that connects Bratunac with Ljubovija on the Serbian bank of the river. They came on foot and carried some of the first details of the alleged killings from the other side.
Neither of the women wished to be identified but one, a resident of Serbia, said she had just been to visit her brother-in-law, who was a Bosnian Serb soldier and the source of some of her news. “He and his friends are quite open about what is going on,” the woman said. “They are killing Muslim soldiers.
“They said they killed 1,600 yesterday alone and estimated that in all they had killed about 4,000 men.
“They said they were in a big hurry, so they were shooting most of them. Only the known ‘war criminals’, the ones that they have been looking for, had their throats slit.''
If the numbers are accurate, then Bratunac, about 15km north of Srebrenica, would be the site of the largest number of executions in a Serb detention camp since the start of the war – larger in scale than the killings in Sucica and Omarska, the two most notorious camps set up in the early days of fighting in northern and eastern Bosnia.
News of Bosnian Serb atrocities against Muslims who tried to flee the fallen “safe area” has been emerging from the testimony of refugees from Srebrenica for over a week, and the Bosnian authorities estimate 10,000 people are still unaccounted for.
But the horror stories now surfacing come from Serbs, not Muslims, and refer specifically to men who surrendered or who have been taken prisoner. It will be difficult for the Bosnian Serb authorities to dismiss their accounts as enemy propaganda.
The two women said the killings were going on at the ''playground'', earlier described as a stadium, and at a school near some kind of warehouse. Testimony from all other sources mentioned these same sites.
Other witnesses spoke of having seen a dumper truck full of corpses parked at the roadside near Bratunac. Next to the truck was an earth-mover digging a large hole, presumably a mass grave. But whether these were bodies of Muslim prisoners of war is not clear.
The fate of the Muslim prisoners has been a big concern to international humanitarian groups who, despite promises by the Bosnian Serb authorities almost a week ago, have yet to be granted access to any of the estimated four detention centres. The biggest is believed to be in Bratunac. Video footage shot by the Bosnian Serb television station last week showed hundreds of Muslim men standing in what appeared to be a football pitch. The men had their hands tied behind their backs and were being made repeatedly to sit down and stand up.
The film was taken last Friday in Bratunac but never aired. A copy of the tape, however, was viewed by The Independent before it was confiscated under orders of the Bosnian Serb army.
The film could have been used by human rights investigators to identify individuals who were clearly being held alive by the Bosnian Serbs at one time. It could also have been used as evidence in any war crimes trials.
Both the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, and the Bosnian Serb army commander, General Ratko Mladic, are under investigation as possible war crimes suspects for their roles in atrocities committed in the war, including executions in PoW camps.
The reasons suggested for the reported brutality go back to the first year of the war when Muslim soldiers from Srebrenica managed to break the siege of the town and razed several nearby Serb villages, killing many Serb civilians in the process.
Now that the Srebrenica enclave has been overrun, the Bosnian Serbs want revenge.
“Of course they don't feel bad,” said the woman whose brother-in-law was a Bosnian Serb soldier. “My sister's husband himself lost his father in an attack by Srebrenica Muslims. He was burnt alive in his house.''
The reported killings, however, do not appear to be random acts of revenge.
According to one resident of Bratunac who was visiting Serbia on Wednesday, the local authorities issued an open invitation to all Serbs who lost relatives in the Srebrenica Muslim raids to report to the playground “to avenge themselves”.
Although foreign journalists are banned from the town “for security reasons”, a Serb journalist employed by the Independent and BBC World Service managed to gain entry and heard several single gun shots followed by a rapid burst from an automatic weapon.
He was told the shots were “to celebrate the induction of new soldiers”.
Last Thursday, a UN official who was forced to spend the night in Bratunac before being released also heard gunfire coming from the direction of the playground.
When the official asked what the reason was for the firing, she was told by a Bosnian Serb soldier: “Do not worry, it's just our boys shooting to celebrate our victory.”
Although the Bosnian Serbs have agreed in principle to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross into the detention camps when the “security situation allows”, there are fears among human rights groups that by the time they gain entry it will be too late to determine the full extent of any abuses.
Already, Serb refugees from Srebrenica, who have taken the opportunity of the Bosnian Serb military victory to visit the town, say that evidence of fighting and bloodshed has been cleaned up.
Jela Batkovic, a 66-year-old woman who returned to Srebrenica on Monday, after all Serb refugees were invited back by the Bosnian Serb government, said: “There are no signs of fighting at all. Srebrenica is little more than a ghost town; it is an eerie place.”
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