Cold comfort for a Srebrenica survivor

Peace in Bosnia: Muslim family's horrific flight from fallen enclave shows why Dayton deal's promises can never be fulfilled


Besir Johic is one of the very few Bosnian Muslims forced to flee the advancing rebel Serb army who has had the opportunity to re-visit the home to which, in theory, he can return under the Dayton peace deal. It was not a happy experience.

"The whole place had changed so much. I tried to find our two houses, and they just weren't there any more. There were shells and mines instead."

Mr Johic is also one of the newest refugees in Tuzla: he crossed the front line 10 days ago with seven comrades, including his brother Omer, after four months spent in enemy territory following the exodus from the fallen enclave of Srebrenica in July. Yesterday he saw his 13-year-old son, Asmir, for the first time in three years, and his mother for the first time since he fled the Serb assault on Srebrenica.

The Johic family lived in Cerska, a small town in eastern Bosnia that fell to the Serbs in January 1993. As has become the custom among Bosnians fleeing for their lives, the family split up: Mr Johic, his wife, mother and brothers walked south to Srebrenica, Asmir and other relatives slogged through the mountains north to Tuzla.

"The child was almost frozen because it was winter - my sister-in-law had to drag him along," Mr Johic said. The boy, slight and quiet, obviously inherited the genes that enabled his father to survive for 131 days on apples, snails, mushrooms and nettles, hiding by day from the Serb patrols in Cerska, where the eight men found shelter in an abandoned mill, and foraging for food by night.

"I didn't believe I would ever see my son and mother again - it was so painful for me. My mother didn't cry, but I did," Mr Johic said. "But of course I was thrilled, it was super." Beside him sat Mrs Johic, tiny and wrinkled, her head swathed in a scarf.

"I had three sons - one is dead," she said. "I was so happy, I didn't believe I would ever see my sons again. I was holding back my tears. I was strong, but inside I felt my heart would explode. My son Ragib died ..."

The three brothers set off from Srebrenica together, joining a column striking out through mountains and forests for safety in government-held territory. It was shelled by Serb forces and shattered. Ragib was wounded. His brothers listened helplessly as he died at the Serbs' hands.

As Mr Johic recounted the horrifying tale of his long march, Ragib's widow sat at the back of the room, weeping silently over her baby daughter, Belma. A Srebrenica household is always filled with women: so few of their menfolk survived the Serb onslaught in July. Aziza Hasic, a perfect grandmother, with apple cheeks and a jolly smile, has opened her house, in a small village near the front-line town of Gracanica, to the Johic family.

"Of course we are very happy [with the Dayton deal]. We have not left our houses during the war and we want to stay here," she said. "If the Johics can go home, they will. But if they can't, then they can stay here." But it is not so simple.

Old Mrs Johic has lived at a school in the village since her arrival from Srebrenica in July, and she wants a home of her own. It is an impossible request in Tuzla, where of the 700,000 people living in the region, 235,000 are refugees. There is no room.

But how is the family to return to Cerska, which is to stay under Serb control? "Never", said Refija, Mr Johic's wife. "They killed my son; I could never live there," added Mrs Johic. Her son, who screamed in pain as he stripped away the clothes that had rotted on to his skin during the three months he wore them, was more circumspect. "I would return to my house tomorrow -there is a lot of work to be done to repair it," he said. But could he live under Serb rule? I don't know. It would be very difficult, because not only my brother was killed. Many others were, too."

The return of refugees is vital if Bosnia is to survive in a meaningful way. But it is also unimaginable. Buildings can be restored but the Nato troops dispatched to enforce the peace cannot repair lives ripped apart by years of warfare.