First voices from a town silenced by Serbs' three-year siege

'The way out of Srebrenica was guaranteed ... and you know what happened there'

THE OLD woman rummaged through a small white fridge and emerged triumphant with three colour snapshots - a grandson, a son-in-law, two daughters - her only reminder of the dozens of relatives, including three children, in Sarajevo. Haska Salman is 85; she has survived two world wars but she says this, Bosnia's bloodshed, is worse.

Mrs Salman lives in Gorazde, the last enclave to survive in eastern Bosnia, where the rebel Serbs cut a furious swathe, killing thousands of Muslims and expelling hundreds of thousands more. Mrs Salman was lucky: only a few of the elderly remained in Splaviste, a hamlet taken and lost twice by the Serbs, but at least one of her neighbours was taken away, never to be heard from again.

She was merely forced to abandon everything and pick her way across a half-bombed bridge. "At the bridge I wondered if I should kill myself so I would not have to see Bosnia's pain," she said. But Mrs Salman, like her new neighbours, is a survivor.

For more than three years Gorazde, a dusty town of no pre-war importance, has lived in limbo; coveted by the Serbs for the road that runs through it, clung to by the Muslims as the last pocket of faith in a ruined landscape. Out of sight - the Serbs made it virtually impossible for journalists to visit - it makes news only when under threat, be it direct attack by the Serbs or the roundabout dangers of a peace proposal that suggests exchanging Gorazde for territory elsewhere.

The London Conference last summer made much of the politicians' desire to protect Gorazde from the fate of Srebrenica and Zepa; then the British Government withdrew the 350 soldiers who were sent in after the Serb offensive in April 1994 to deter further attacks. In Sarajevo, many are so bitter at the UN's failures that they refuse to admit its vital role in Bosnia's survival. In Gorazde, which so many outsiders felt had been abandoned by the UN, every foreigner is greeted with delight.

"If it had not been for the UN, Gorazde would probably not have survived," said Adisa Alikadic, a young woman whose main entertainment is playing with her 16-month-old nephew, Kemal. "The humanitarian convoys brought us food and everything. . ." Not quite: until lastweek, the Serbs refused to allow aid agencies to import anything but flour, oil, beans and rice.

Everyone wears hand-me-downs or, if they are rich, clothes smuggled in along a mule track from Sarajevo; their meagre diet is spiced with chillies grown in window boxes and supplemented by the occasional cabbage or apple from the farmland around.

Under the US brokered cease-fire, the Serbs agreed to allow civilian traffic escorted by the UN to pass unimpeded along the road to Sarajevo, 55 miles away. But as usual, there are a fewhitches - and a lot of fear. Soldiers manning the checkpoints are reluctant to allow convoys to pass freely - not only is there a war on, but they are steeped in the communist belief that travellers should justify their journey; who knows what anarchy might spring from freedom of movement.

Our convoy, which included the US ambassador to Bosnia, John Menzies, was halted for 10 minutes while a Serb soldier asked to see our ID. "That's all the identification we need," said an American security man, pointing at the Stars and Stripes flying from Mr Menzies armoured car. Even protected by several inches of reinforced glass and steel, a heavily armed escort and foreign passports, we felt a little nervous. No wonder few in Gorazde were making the journey, desperate as they are for contact with the outside world.

"Perhaps I would go alone," Ms Alikadic said dubiously, "but not with the baby." On the way home we drove through Stijenice, home of Mustafa Milic, who lives with his wife in what was the janitor's office at a closed Gorazde primary school. "I want to go back to Sarajevo to be with my five children," Mr Milic said. "The road is very important - it's a sign that peace is coming."

But would it be safe? "No. The way out of Srebrenica was guaranteed [by the Serbs and the UN] and you know what happened there. When the TV cameras were around, the people were OK. When the cameras left, they began to die. . ." His wife, Nurka, added: "If we were sure, we would go right now." Mrs Salman, who keeps the few clothes she has been given and a black handbag in the redundant fridge, is a prime candidate to use the route out. She has no family in Gorazde, and lives with a young woman in a small flat heated by a wood-stove.

Two world wars have paled in comparison to the bloodshed in Bosnia. "In this war many people have been killed, many girls raped. Everything has been done more cruelly than in the other wars," she said. As Dr Alija Begovic, director of the shell-scarred hospital on the east bank of the Drina river, said: "What really hurts people is the manner of making war. It's quite inhuman." He was thinking of the man and his two children, 10 and 12, seriously wounded by a shell. The man had been chopping wood; his wife brought lunch, pie and salad, and the children. The Serbs spotted the picnic and fired. His wife is dead.

Mrs Milic weeps as she recalls the 20th-century life she was forced to abandon. "We cook on fires, wash clothes by hand. I do everything the way people did 100 years ago." And there is a medieval feel to the place: strangers are a major attraction. Everywhere we went, people followed, crowding to hear our questions, curious and friendly, pressing us with apples and, most shaming, thanking us for visiting Gorazde.

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