At the mercy of Mladic

BOSNIA Serbs are invited to take revenge on prisoners. Robert Block reports
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The Independent Online
BELGRADE - General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military supremo, is at a table at an abandoned UN post on the outskirts of Zepa. He is trying to convince the besieged village's Muslim representatives sitting across from him to surrender. He leans back, oozing confidence and power. The Muslims shift uncomfortably in their chairs.

Surrender, General Mladic tells them, and Zepa will be spared the ravages of a final assault. The Bosnian Serb army will evacuate women, children and elderly, as well as the sick and the wounded, from the village. Only the men aged 18-55 will be forced to remain as PoWs, so that they can be exchanged for captured Serbs.

At one point in the videotape, which was broadcast across the world last week, General Mladic leans forward and waves his cigarette in the air. "Zar mi ne verejute?" - Don't you trust me? - he asks, with genuine surprise that it could be remotely possible that his guests might not.

Their answer is not recorded. But if even a fraction of the stories emerging from Srebrenica are true, the men of Zepa have every reason to be afraid of becoming PoWs of General Mladic.

According to residents of the Serb-contolled town of Bratunac and Serbs from Serbia who have visited the area, thousands of captured men from Srebrenica have been summarily executed by Bosnian Serbs bent on revenge for alleged Muslim abuses in the region.

As of yesterday, 11 days after Serbs overran Srebrenica, no international humanitarian organisation has been granted access to any of the Bosnian Serb detention centres to determine the fate of thousands of male Muslim prisoners.

In the last few days, stories of mass executions of prisoners have started to cross the Drina River, which separates Bosnia from Serbia proper. This time, to the irritation of the Bosnian Serb authorities, the tales are recounted by Serbs, not only their Muslim "enemies".

Some Serbs spoke of as many as 4,000 captured men having been executed. Others put the number at 2,000. With access to the area blocked by Bosnian Serb police and soldiers, there is no way to verify the figures. But it is not unreasonable to assume that many hundreds of Muslims, at least, have been slaughtered.

One Serb woman married to a man from Bratunac claims to have seen one of the execution sites, a playground in Bratunac. She described the field as being "knee-deep in blood".

Her husband said he witnessed the execution of a captured Muslim who was accused of committing atrocities against Serbs in a 1992 raid on Kravice, a Serb village near Srebrenica. Dozens of Serb civilians were reported killed in that attack.

According to the man, the killing took place near a school in Bratunac that is being used as a detention centre. "Before he was shot, the Muslim told the soldiers: 'If we knew what shitty soldiers you Serbs were, we would have sent our women to take Kravice.' They then shot him mercilessly," the man said. He laughed when asked if there was any kind of judicial proccess preceding the execution.

Bosnian Serbs from the Drina valley around Bratunac, and Gen eral Mladic himself, have long reserved a particular venom for the Muslims of Srebrenica. In late 1992 and early 1993, the Muslims broke the Serb siege of the town and razed villages up and down the Drina. Their luck appeared to run out in April 1993 when the Serbs were poised to crush the town. But the Serbs were denied victory when the UN stepped in to declare the town and its environs a "safe area".

However, in the past few months, as the Serbs restricted the flow of aid to the enclave, the Muslims again began to break out and attack Serb villages, in a desperate hunt for livestock and supplies. Again Serbs were killed and villages burnt.

But it was not enough for General Mladic simply to remove the thorn of Srebrenica from his side. There were too many old scores to settle. According to one Bratunac resident interviewed in Serbia last week, the local authorities issued an open invitation to all Serbs who lost relatives in Srebrenica Muslim raids to report to the playground in town to "avenge themselves".

Attempts at revenge killings were also witnessed by Andre Schouten, a Dutch colonel who was based at the UN military compound in Potocari outside Srebrenica. After the fall of the enclave he had been caring for 46 Muslim patients at a clinic in Bratunac. Among their number were 18 wounded Muslim soldiers.

According to Col Schouten, who spoke to foreign journalists by telephone last week, he had had been forced on several occasions to defend his patients from armed Bosnian Serb soldiers who tried to "burst in and kill the enemy".

In the absence of hard evidence, however, most Serbs reject the reports of abuses and insist that the Bosnian Serbs have acted, and continue to act, properly.

Mitar Radovanovic is a well-dressed truck driver who refuses to listen to any of that "nonsense" about new Serb atrocities.

"I was in Bosnia after Srebrenica fell and I can tell you that Serb soldiers were the picture of correctness and proper behaviour," he said.

On 12 July, he and his partner were charged with the task of hauling 300 litres of juice, 60 litres of milk and 480 packages of meat paste across the Drina river from the sleepy Serbian town of Ljubovija to Potocari, where victorious Bosnian Serb soldiers were lording it over thousands of vanquished Muslim women and children.

"You know, Mladic was there. I saw him with my very own eyes," said the driver. "He was taking meat paste from a box I was holding and was distributing it to the children, saying 'Take it, take it.'

"Why, he even patted some of those kids on the head. This is the sign of a truly great warrior. Only the Serbs have this capacity of forgiveness."