'Can you hear the battle?': Srebrenica radio chronicles the death of a town, writes Marcus Tanner in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
IN A SMALL backroom in the Bosnian Presidency in Sarajevo, Murat Efendic fiddles with the knobs of a short-wave radio, as he does every day at 3pm precisely. Mr Efendic's heartrending job, as the representative from Srebrenica in the Bosnian capital, is to talk to the besieged community in his native town, under siege and slowly but surely falling to the encircling Serbs.

There is a crackle on the radio. Mr Efendic cranes forward. 'Hello Srebrenica. Srebrenica, can you hear me?' There is only hissing. 'I'll try on the ninth band,' he mutters, turning the dial once more. This time a metallic-sounding voice comes through clearly. 'Sarajevo?' It is Ibrahim Becirevic from Srebrenica.

'The centre of the town is quiet but rockets and grenades are hitting the outskirts,' Mr Becirevic reports. The two men go through the number of killed and wounded, how many have been evacuated on United Nations convoys and then they exchange a few personal greetings.

Mr Efendic switches off, fills out a white form listing the main points, to be sent to the government, then writes a detailed account in a black-bound book. After a year of siege, the book is bulging. Alongside the other eastern Bosnian enclaves of Gorazde and Zepa, Srebrenica has become a symbol of resistance to Bosnia's Muslims of their David and Goliath struggle against the Serbian juggernaut.

It is a strange fate for a small and obscure place. Srebrenica is a very old town, first settled by the Romans who named it Argentaria after the silver mines nearby. The name stuck. Srebro is silver in Serbo-Croat. The Romans also discovered healing springs. Until the war it was best known to visitors to the spa and to the patients of the adjacent rehabilitation centre, reputedly one of the best in the former Yugoslavia.

Because it is tucked in a cleft in the mountains of eastern Bosnia, the world has passed Srebrenica by. It was a typical Bosnian town with two main streets, a school, a hospital, a mosque dating back to the Ottoman era, and a post office, briefly famous as the spot where the UN commander in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, raised the UN flag and promised to protect the inhabitants.

Srebrenica's centuries of rustic obscurity ended with terrifying speed on 16 April 1992, when armed Serbs seized the town and began burning, looting and killing. About 100 of the 800 houses, mostly belonging to Muslims, were torched.

It seemed Srebrenica would follow a pattern set in the other towns along the river Drina, where well-organised minority Serbs drove out the Muslim majority with little difficulty. The townspeople fled to the woods and to isolated villages and then picked off the Serbs one by one. Mr Efendic claims 2,000 Serbian soldiers died. 'This is why the Serbs feel such rage about Srebenica,' said Mr Efendic. 'They cannot wait to get back into the town and take their revenge.'

Since the Muslims retook the town in May, the town has been run by the war presidency, a six-member body led by the mayor, Hajrudin Abdulic, and Naser Oric, the youthful head of the defence force, who ironically is a former bodyguard of the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. The war presidency negotiates with the UN officials when they bring in convoys, decides which civilians can be evacuated, and distributes food.

Srebrenica withstood eight months of siege before the first UN food convoy arrived in November. Living conditions were appalling and have got worse, as the Serbs press closer to the town, forcing more refugees to seek sanctuary in the centre. Its pre-war population of 6,500 swelled to 20,000 after a flood of refugees, the victims of 'ethnic cleansing', arrived from Bratunac and other towns. When the neighbouring Bosnian-held enclaves of Cerska, Kamenica and Konjevic Polje fell to Serbs recently, thousands more arrived.

Srebrenica's remoteness has helped save it from Serbian assaults, but the altitude means there are few sources of food. Total starvation has been staved off by US air drops of food. Daily they bring an average of 20 tons of ready-to-eat meals. Medicine has been dropped from the air to the local hospital, run by Nedret Mujkanovic since the death of its director, Dr Nijaz Dijanic, in a bombardment. But there are only 120 beds to cope with more than 600 seriously wounded.

A serious problem is water supply. The stream is contaminated and the water plant at nearby Zeleni Jadar switches back and forth between Bosnian and Serbian control.

Abandoned by the world, Srebrenica has now come to the end of the line. Mr Efendic said its only hope is to station a battalion of UN peace-keepers promptly in the town: 'In Srebrenica the world has an opportunity to show it has the will to protect an enormous amount of innocent civilians,' he said.

Leading article, page 23

Andrew Marr, page 25