Frozen out of 'Republika Srpska': Marcus Tanner finds darkness, destruction and kiwi juice in Bratunac, eastern Bosnia

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The Independent Online
'NO, you can not enter Srebrenica,' said the Bosnian Serb captain in Bratunac, with a smirk. 'Your piece of paper from the bureaucrats in Belgrade is of no interest to me. You must go to Pale and get authorisation from General Mladic himself and then I will escort you to Srebrenica. In person.'

The captain's assistant did not know I understood Serbian. 'Don't let them get near the place - you know what these Western journalists will publish,' he whispered. 'Send them to the Serbian graveyard.'

It was a year since I had been to Srebrenica on the first international relief convoy to reach the besieged eastern Bosnian Muslim town, and depressingly little appeared to have changed since then.

United Nations forces patrolling the town have dulled the level of fighting. But Srebrenica's 50,000 wretched inhabitants are no less cut off from the world. The Serbs allow in food but nothing else. No winter materials, no clothes, no blankets and no blabbermouth journalists.

At the hotel Fontana in Bratunac the receptionist squinted at me. 'A room?' he spluttered. 'You have authorisation?' There was a quick telephone call to the police station, followed by a doubtful nod.

In the freezing restaurant some policemen and a couple of coughing peasants wearing tall furry hats studded the ill-lit room. A dumpy waitress swam out of the darkness into a pool of light under one of the few remaining spotlights. I asked for a drink - any drink. 'Alcohol is not authorised,' she shouted. 'Kiwi juice or coffee only.'

Later she swam by the table again. 'You have hard currency?' she hissed. 'Ten Deutschmarks? Go to the reception - I will find you a bottle of local brandy. If anyone sees you with it, you brought it from Serbia yourself.'

Back in the restaurant a man in a dirty raincoat shuffled over. 'I tell you that even if America, Germany, Britain and France attacked us altogether we will flatten the lot. You can say goodbye to Berlin. Serbia is now the third force in the world after Russia and America.'

He donned a sly expression when I asked about his old Muslim neighbours. 'They were nice people - they would lend you money sooner than the Serbs,' he mused. 'We will have Srebrenica as well soon,' he added absent-mindedly. 'All the Muslims there will have to go to Tuzla.' And Tuzla? 'Oh, that will be a Muslim colony in Yugoslavia.'

Fumbling my way up a staircase which smelt strongly of stale urine, I reached my ice-cold bedroom and flicked on the light switch. Darkness. The third force in the world was short of light bulbs.

Bratunac is part of Radovan Karadzic's Bosnian Serb state, called the Republika Srpska. According to the latest European initiative, if Republika Srpska hands over 3 per cent of the territory it holds to the Muslims, sanctions against Serbia would start to be suspended and the Republika Srpska recognised as a legitimate government.

The town's former majority Muslim population - the Serbs insist on calling them 'the Turks' - have disappeared. Thousands are holed up like rats in Srebrenica and many are dead. The Muslims have left few traces in Bratunac. The Serbs demolished the mosques with explosives and blew up a street of shops owned by Muslims.

There are some Muslims left in Bratunac, women married to Bosnian Serbs. I was told they had all 'voluntarily' renounced their Muslim faith and culture, embraced the Serbian Orthodox religion and Serbianised their names.

A bridge spans the river Drina between Bratunac and Serbia proper but I was not allowed to drive across it. 'Your documents do not authorise you to cross this bridge,' said the 'Republika Srpska' policeman. The bridge I was authorised to cross lay 25 miles away at Zvornik.

The road to Zvornik wound through mile after mile of destroyed Muslim villages. At Konjevic Polje the minaret of a ruined mosque lay in the newly fallen snow. Not a soul was left in the wasteland. The victors had scrawled Serbian crosses and graffiti in Cyrillic script on the deserted dwellings. My Serbian driver from Belgrade was subdued. 'I had no idea about all this destruction,' he muttered. 'Whatever religion they were, it is such a waste.'

At Zvornik bridge there was another checkpoint and another search of the car. 'A computer]' exclaimed the policeman. 'Do you have authorisation on your documents for a computer?' He shut the boot and leaned through the window with a conspiratrial grin. 'If it's petrol you're after, I could get you 5,000 litres at two-and-half Marks each. Just give me a call from the other side.'

'What about customs?' my driver squeaked. The policeman gazed mockingly. 'Just give me a call.' Across the Drina a group of identically uniformed policemen standing under an identical flag waved me into rump Yugoslavia. I was in another state, supposedly. 'Right' said the policeman, opening the door. 'Where's your authorisation?'

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