He's coming, he just hasn't arrived yet

In the crowded camp at Tuzla, two Muslim girls from Srebrenica wait. And wait. Others have given up all hope. Christopher Bellamy speaks to Bosnia's latest refugees from horror
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There can be no more despairing group of people on Earth than the men, women and children who huddle in tents at Tuzla airbase. Without exception, every one of these refugees from Srebrenica can tell a tale of eviction and destruction, of rape or murder, of fathers, brothers and children who are dead or missing. Even those who believe they may yet find their loved ones seem likely to be cruelly denied.

On the runway at Tuzla, near the thousand-tented refugee camp, three girls were wandering, signs of vigour and hope still visible in their faces in spite of their fatigue. Elvira, 14 and Amira, 9, were sisters; Samira, 12, their friend. Their mother was here too, they said. They had come from the village of Kutlici, near Srebrenica and, like most of the other refugees, had been gathered together at the UN base at Potocari before being bussed out by the Bosnian Serbs.

"And your father?"

"He was coming over the hills, with one of my brothers," said Elvira. "He hasn't arrived yet ... " She seemed to think it was only a delay.

Outside the refugee camp at Tuzla airbase, the "displaced person register list" now bears 6,440 names. The entries in the remarks column tell of several times that number unaccounted for, and maybe 10,000 about whom the UN authorities and the Red Cross are very concerned. The neatly compiled list is the result of detailed interviews with the refugees, conducted as they arrived in Tuzla. Most of the names of those registered at the camp are female: Hasija Salcinovic: son lost. Sevala Alikodic: husband and son lost. Halida Ibric: husband missing.

Survivors tell terrible tales of the flight from Srebrenica, after the Serb capture of the "safe area" last week. There are accounts of Bosnian Serb soldiers dressed in UN uniforms and blue helmets luring refugees out of the woods before shooting them. Refugees at Tuzla spoke of three girls being taken away for three hours and returning covered in blood; of men being taken off buses and then shots being heard; of others being taken to a place called "the slaughterhouse", and having their throats cut. Many of the accounts come second or third hand, but about one in five of those I spoke to said they had seen what they described.

When the Bosnian Serb troops arrived at Potocari, Senad Jusic said, they had seemed relatively well disciplined. But then, "real Chetniks with beards" appeared. Pressed on whether there was a distinction, he demurred. "As far as we're concerned they're all Chetniks. All the same."

When Srebrenica fell to the Serbs last week, the formula was, at first sight, simple. The women, children and old men from the Muslim enclave, which had a population of 42,000 in 1993, would be taken by bus through Bosnian Serb territory to an established crossing point at the village of Staric, near Kladanj, and allowed to pass into the main body of Bosnian Muslim territory, near the big industrial city of Tuzla, at the end of a tortuous supply route which evades Bosnian Serb forces and the Muslims' own military operations. But people in Srebrenica knew that the Serbs wanted to be rid of Muslim men of fighting age. Muslim soldiers who had defended the enclave for three years, other men, and the wives and girlfriends of senior Bosnian Muslim officers, refused to believe that they would be safe. So they formed a massive column, maybe 10,000 strong, and set out to march the 50 miles to Tuzla. There were, then, two exoduses: one, sanctioned and controlled by the Bosnian Serbs, with the embarrassed participation of the UN; the other a fighting withdrawal.

The father and brother of the young sisters went with those who fought their way out. But as time ticks on, the chance of more men emerging from the forest diminishes. The column apparently broke up into groups. The first group had the easiest time; then, it seems, the Serbs diverted troops from Zepa, the enclave which was still holding out, to try to cut off the exodus of fighting men from Srebrenica.

"Along with the groups who went through the hills there were girls, and older people, because the girls didn't dare go in the buses," said Himzo Muratovic, 29, who had been in the fighting column. "I was a witness when five girls were taken off our bus," said Hasib Jubovic, 63. "They took their clothes off them immediately. And then, well, you know ...."

Dividing the population in two, between men who could fight and those perceived to be too old, between little girls and young women, was never going to be simple.

"The UN called in the population," said Hasib. "People not capable of fighting: women, girls, older men. They called them together in the factory at Potocari" - near the base of the Dutch UN peacekeepers. "Of course, there were a certain number of people of military age. Unprofor, the UN protection force - so-called - instead of protecting them, left them to the Serbs. The Serbs gave us an ultimatum, and the UN gathered us in Potocari. When the deadline came, the Serbs came and shook hands. Nobody from the UN resisted."

Sijad Dedic, 23, had been with the fighting column. "They started as one group," he said, "then they were forced to split into several groups. The first group had most luck and got through. The others - they were not so lucky."

Senad Jusic, 30, was a schoolteacher in Srebrenica. He looked old for his age and had been brought out by bus. "Along the way they were moving through minefields," he said. "There was no other way. The Chetniks [Serbs] formed two fronts. One was turned towards the main Bosnian army forces here, in Tuzla. The other flank was facing possible arrivals from Srebrenica. So many people were killed along the way. The UN didn't help them. If it hadn't been for the Bosnian army here, we wouldn't even have been able to enter the Tuzla area."

In another tent was Lutvo Sandzic. He had left Srebrenica, like most of the others, on the previous Tuesday, and like them had spent two days and two nights at the factory in Potocari. When the Serbs came and the UN left, men thought to be of fighting age were taken away. But at 65, Lutvo and his wife were not of interest to the Serbs. "They loaded us into trucks," he said. "And then we started for here."

With him were two of his grandchildren: Azra, a seven-year old girl, and Azmir, a four-year old boy. Azmir was only three months old when his 35-year old father, Huso, was captured in 1992, at the beginning of the fighting around Srebrenica. Lutvo had two other sons, Ibro, aged 30 and Jusuf, 29. He said they were both still in Potocari. Most likely, they had tried to make their way out with the fighting column. But their children, too, had been evacuated.

"I'll have to take care of all of them," Lutvo said. His wife, Zumra, had gone to visit a friend in another tent, and his daughter in law, Azra and Azmir's mother, had gone to the doctor because Azra was suffering from haemorrhoids. So what had happened to Huso?

"He was probably killed by Arkan's men." His suntanned, wizened face had remained impassive, until now. He began to cry. Arkan's is the name associated with many of the worst incidents of "ethnic cleansing". There have been reports that the feared commander, something of a celebrity in Serbia, has been in the Srebrenica area recently.

Listening to these tales of horror were two representatives of the UN commissioner on human rights in the camp, interviewing the refugees to try to sort fact from fiction: Hubert Wieland, the high commissioner's special representative, and a representative from the Sarajevo centre for human rights. Every one of the 6,000 refugees had a story to tell and it was clearly implausible that only two officials of the UN on a week-long tour could sift establish the truth.

The Red Cross has been granted permission to enter Srebrenica to check whether atrocities have taken place there. But this is a war zone. What happens on hillsides, in isolated barns, at the roadside, may be impossible to check and quantify. Young armed men, whose own lives have recently been in danger, who are themselves terrified and bitter, will take liberties and reprisals of their own accord. It happens on all sides, and always has.

Amid the cruelty, the innocence of the young sisters Elvira and Amira seemed almost unbelievable. Perhaps they had heard of how the column fought its way through minefields and ambushes, and had not associated that with the fate of their father and brother. They were coming: "over the hills", Elvira said. "But they haven't arrived yet."