Sleepwalkers lost in the nightmare of Srebrenica: Robert Block, the first journalist to get into the blockaded town for months, witnessed the numbing plight of its imprisoned Muslims

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The Independent Online
The people of Srebrenica appear to be sleepwalking through life. Expressionless, thousands stroll up and down the main street of this battered but still beautiful town: old women in long skirts and headscarves, bored young men in shorts, amputees on home-made crutches, small blonde children wearing clothes made of parachute material from US humanitarian air drops.

Conditions in Srebrenica are appalling. The river that flows through the town is an open sewer; the smell of faeces fills the air. The town, which had a prewar population of less than 5,000 people, has to cope with about 20,000 and a further 25,000 in villages near by. Water for drinking and washing is scarce. Food, mainly handouts from relief agencies, is barely sufficient.

Denied free movement outside their enclave and with no prospects of employment, there is little to do now that fighting has stopped except to walk - which is how most of the people crammed into this shell- shocked valley fill their days. All dressed up with nowhere to go, they walk by the same burnt-out trucks and factories again and again and watch Canadian peacekeepers patrol the streets which were a mortar range for Serb forces two months ago.

'You know how it is when somebody has nothing to do, they just kill time. That is all we do - kill time,' said Almir, a 19-year-old refugee from Sarajevo.

There are no restaurants, no cafes, no stores, no electricity. A sign along the mortar-pitted main street advertising 'Mixed Grill Speciality of the House' seems to have fallen from another planet. Cut off from the outside world, Srebrenica lives in a kind of collective solitary confinement enforced by Serb guns.

The few villagers with land to work till the soil but there are no seeds to sow. Scores of wizened women squat on a hillside near the school which houses 800 refugees in 20 classrooms, tending small fires, baking maize bread. The forests above them are disappearing as trees are chopped down for fuel.

Some young women stand along the street, smoothing their skirts and eyeing provocatively the Canadians and the tougher young Muslim men who used to be at the front lines. Prostitution is a growing problem, and the currency the women are hustling for is cigarettes.

'The going rate for a bonk is one cigarette,' said a UN aid worker. (One cigarette a day is all those lucky enough to have a job with the relief agencies can earn for 14 hours of work. The rest get their smokes anyway they can. There are often fights on the streets over tobacco.)

This is life in the largest and so far only UN-protected 'safe area' for Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is where last month mothers were fighting each other for the chance to give their babies away to strangers who had been granted permission to leave.

The UN-brokered agreement between Serbs and Muslims to establish a 15km-wide, 15km-long demilitarised zone around Srebrenica has undoubtedly given residents a chance to rebuild lives shattered by a year of fighting.

However, the town described last month by an amateur radio operator as being 'on the verge of madness' because of a relentless siege by Bosnian Serbs, is now going stir crazy because of the terms that have saved it from destruction.

Even those who have pulled the people of Srebrenica back from the brink of savagery and living in their own waste are starting to question their purpose.

'What is the point of Srebrenica for these people? There is nothing to do. There is little to eat. The Serbs do not allow any materials that could aid in long-term reconstruction to enter the town. There is no seed and they already missed the planting season anyway. There is no future for such a situation,' one high-ranking UN worker told me.

It has been months since journalists have made it into Srebrenica. UN officials and relief workers have been reluctant to speak out about life in Srebrenica for fear of angering their bosses or, more importantly, the Serbs.

The international community is looking to expand the concept of 'safe areas' for Muslims as the only viable alternative to an acceptable peace plan.

The hope is to establish rules by which both sides are to act and then, if the deals hold, apply them elsewhere.

'It's the way forward for Paris and London and Washington because it offers the least involvement. But the investment needed to make these places viable will be huge and even then they will be completely artificial,' said one UN official.

Adding to Srebrenica's woes, according to relief workers, the Bosnian Serbs prevent vital materials such as tents or plastic sheeting or anything that smacks of long-term stablity from entering, calling them 'non-humanitarian items'.

The biggest problem, however, is water for drinking and washing. There are only three 15,000-litre reservoirs of drinking water for the entire population - about two litres a person per day, nowhere near enough, especially as the early summer sun beats down.

A deal to provide the town with water for washing from a treatment plant in Serbian-controlled territory was cancelled on Monday because the Bosnian Serbs said the UN had failed to demilitarise the town fully - the excuse the Bosnian Serb leadership uses to justify their continued military presence around the town.

In the three weeks since the 250 Canadians arrived, there have been 150 ceasefire violations, including sniping at civilians by Serbs. Bosnian Serb soldiers manning the main checkpoint outside Srebrenica freely admit firing across the line in violation of the agreement.

Always referring to the Muslims as 'Turks' or 'extremists', one bearded soldier defended the attacks: 'The extremists go up to the UN checkpoints dressed like civilians and that is why we shoot at them because we recognise them.'

Commander Marcel Chevaria, head of the Canadian contingent of UN forces assigned to protect Srebrenica, has no illusions about its trapped inhabitants. 'They cannot live for the next 20 years like this. You cannot solve this and then solve other places like Zepa and then Gorazde. You need a global solution for all of Bosnia.'

Hamdia Fazic, the deputy mayor, looked down at his shoes and laughed in resignation, when asked what he thought of the state of his town. 'It is a death camp with a peaceful air about it,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)