BOSNIA CRISIS: REFUGEES: Muslims' flight brings no escape from despair

Nightmare goes on for starving and bewildered women and children of Srebrenica as UN and Bosnian officials bicker over their fate
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Tuzla - The body of a young woman hung from a tree where she committed suicide in a refugee camp full of Muslims driven from Srebrenica. No one had removed her body.

The woman, about 20 years old, was one of thousands of Muslim civilians who fled the Bosnian Serb capture of the Srebrenica enclave. They have found refuge on government soil but no escape from a nightmare that for some has lasted three years. Most are in despair, weeping for men left behind in Serb hands and desperate for food and water under the burning sun.

Thousands are living and sleeping in the open at an airfield outside Tuzla or in the streets of Kladanj, after trudging across front lines where the Serbs dumped them. Some have arrived with tales of killing and rape which have been staples of the civilian plight throughout the Bosnian war. Now they lack someone to look after them.

The Bosnian government says it is up to UN aid agencies to care for them. Relief workers in Tuzla said they were waiting instructions from the government.

At least 14,000 refugees have crossed the front line on foot to Kladanj, west of Srebrenica, with 20,000 more expected.

Those shipped to the UN-guarded Dubrave airport outside Tuzla have camped on the grass, bewildered and exhausted. Those still in Kladanj are waiting in the streets for help. "We have nothing and nowhere to go now," said Mirama Mujcic, 25, at the airport. "Since we came here no one has asked us anything or offered to register us."

One truck full of bread arrived and some 300 refugees crammed around. People leapt in the air to try to catch loaves of bread thrown from the lorry.

Some stared at the visitors who poured through the airport entrance in search of relatives they had not seen for over two years, after the first exodus from Srebrenica early in 1993.

No relief agencies were around to alleviate their plight. A UN official in Tuzla said it had provided only emergency help while waiting for instructions from the Bosnian government.

A local doctor, Salih Mulagic, said she feared epidemics such as dysentery could break out. "The situation is terrible," Dr Mulagic said. "Our improvised clinic is already full of exhausted and undernourished people, but there is no epidemic yet. There are good chances of people acquiring entero-colitis or dysentery."

Many of the refugees were children and it appeared very few men of military age had been released by Serb forces. Women, elderly people and children were taken by bus to the front line then walked for two hours to get away from Serb territory in a silent column - the biggest exodus in the three years of the Bosnian conflict.

They said the worst thing in Srebrenica was the fear of not knowing what would happen to them. But the fear persisted even after they reached the relative safety of the airport at Tuzla.

"I hope this is not going to be the same as Srebrenica. We are still afraid of being persecuted, tired and without sleep," said Zula Hasanovic.

She said the Serbs in Srebrenica had laughed at them and threatened "the same thing would happen to us wherever we go".