Abortions testify to Srebrenica despair: Residents of a Muslim enclave in Bosnia are sliding into a spiral of madness and gloom, writes Robert Block in Belgrade

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The Independent Online
THESE ARE snapshots of life in Srebrenica today: a teenage girl caught in the headlights of an aid worker's car squats naked at the roadside wailing hysterically in the Bosnian winter night; women pay for back-room abortions with cartons of cigarettes or, more rarely, precious Deutschmarks; they prefer to risk death by infection or incompetent surgery rather than bring a new child into their world. Residents talk of suicide. Aid workers suspect there has been infanticide.

As hopes for a negotiated settlement to almost two years of war break down in Geneva and the prospect of intensified fighting looms, it appears Srebrenica is sliding into a spiral of madness and despair that Nato air strikes could never hope to break. Accounts of life in the Muslim enclaves by a UN humanitarian field officer who has returned to Belgrade portray a population surviving physically but crumbling emotionally and spiritually.

Jose Luis Loera has just finished serving three months in Srebrenica, working for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In an interview yesterday, Mr Loera said that in the so- called UN safe area 'uncertainty about the future is what sucks out most people's energy and grinds them down every day'. Surrounded by Serbian militias, sniped at, feeling forgotten by the world, and afraid of being abandoned by the remaining 150 Canadian UN troops 'protecting' them, many people in Srebrenica are emotionally at their tether's end.

The irony, Mr Loera said, is that the material situation in Srebrenica is better now than at any time over the last year. Just 12 months ago, the population of Srebrenica - swollen to more than 40,000 by refugees fleeing 'ethnic cleansing' elsewhere in eastern Bosnia - were starving amid rubble while Serbian artillery shells rained down relentlessly. In the first months after the town's surrender and 'protected' status were worked out, there was little food, few cigarettes and nothing to do but pace the streets like caged animals. For a long time the people did not even want to try to rebuild their village, fearing it might provoke their attackers.

Today, despite obstructions in the flow of aid and occasional difficulties with Serbs at checkpoints around the town, the UN and other humanitarian organisations have managed to send just enough supplies to start a shelter project and to bring an antiquated water plant back on line. There is salt, a luxury unknown in many parts of Bosnia, and food aid is a bit more varied than just the flour and sugar that other towns live on. Three primary schools have been opened, giving 6,000 children a new lease on life. (But school materials are in such short supply there is concern classes may have to close down soon.)

Some residents have managed to rig up miniature hydro-electric generators, 'water wheels' driven by small dams along the river-turned- open sewer that runs through town.

Yet, according to Mr Loera, every step towards this semblance of normality only seems to bring the anxieties of people to the surface. 'As the situation became more under control it was possible to detect other deeper problems,' he said, adding that people seemed more tired and depressed now than ever. The UN, he said, often receives requests to treat or evacuate hysterical or delirious residents.

One indicator the UN has looked at to measure the depths of despair of the population is the number of abortions. The decision to have a child today in Bosnia is often heavily tinged with politics. In Sarajevo, for instance, where a spirit of defiance is still alive and kicking, there is a wartime baby boom. It is almost as if civilians have decided to fight back against their attackers by procreation. Not so in Srebrenica, according to Mr Loera, as many as three women a day report to the local hospital with complications from botched abortions, leading the UN to conclude that the actual number of terminated pregnancies is much higher.

Although abortions in Srebrenica are also used as a method of contraception, according to a UNHCR spokeswoman, Lyndall Sachs, doubts about the future viability of their homes and the savage conditions in which they are living are the main factors motivating women to seek abortions. In addition to the abortions, there are at least three known cases where women are suspected of having killed their babies to free themselves of the burden of another mouth to feed and another life to worry about.

The despair is due in part to tension between the local population and the refugees, but in the main it is linked to continuing safety concern. Last week, 11 people were wounded and one was killed when Serbs decided to celebrate the Serbian Orthodox new year with an attack on Srebrenica. The Serbs managed to penetrate the outskirts of the town and came to within one kilometre of the centre.

The Serbian soldiers took advantage of positions abandoned by Canadian troops, who withdrew from the enclave almost three months ago. When the UN was forced to redeploy the company of Canadians in October, residents first tried to stop them from leaving and then stoned them as they pulled out.

At the moment, it seems a solution to the current source of tension over Srebrenica between the international community and the Bosian Serbs has been resolved. On Tuesday, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, gave his word that two lightly armed companies of Dutch soldiers would be allowed to replace the Canadians next month. Nato had threatened to bomb the Serbs unless the Canadians were allowed out and replacements allowed in. But Srebrenica residents know it will take more than 300 Dutch soldiers and the threat of air strikes to safeguard their futures.