'How can we have hope while Mladic lives?' How can we hope while Mladic lives?'

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The Independent Online
For just a moment, the sobbing which had filled this suffocating stadium seemed to stop. And for just a moment row after row of brimming eyes looked up and stared towards the figure flickering across a distant screen.

At first, it was hard to focus through the gloom. But when Mirzeta Cevic recognised the figure in battle fatigues she clasped her little boy, Mirnes, close to her. "Mladic," she whispered quietly as it seemed did the other 6,000 Srebrenica women who gathered yesterday in a stadium in northern Bosnia to remember the slaughter of their men and the ravaging of their "safe haven" town. "How can we have any hope while he is still alive," said Mirzeta, who has not seen her husband, Hamza, since 11 July, 1995.

The women had come together here exactly one year after what is now widely acknowledged to have been the worst massacre on European soil since the Second World War. It was a gathering staged by the women's influential "Sisters" representing the international community.

The event was elaborately staged, featuring film clips of the Butcher of Srebrenica himself - Ratko Mladic, interspersed with quotations from the Koran by Queen Noor of Jordan and a reading from a letter of good wishes from Bill Clinton.

The intention was apparently to encourage the women of Srebrenica, who fled in panic as their menfolk were being massacred, to think of the living and not just the dead.

The "Sisters" were asking too much. To think of the living is hard if all around you your dead are being exhumed. The first bodies were pulled out this week from the mass graves of Srebrenica. To think with hope of the future is hard for women like these, who watch war criminals like Mladic still strutting the Bosnian stage and who know they have no chance of returning to their lives in Srebrenica.

For the women gathered in Tuzla yesterday, there was no debate, only stark and simple memories. Mirzeta Cevic described how for three days before the enclave fell she and her family had lived in shelters fearing Mladic's troops were about to enter the town.

With her husband and four children she fled north to a refugee camp where she first encountered the General. "My husband was holding the little boy," she said. "He asked him to put the boy down and to get on a bus full of other men. I never saw my husband again."

Other women described how their husbands had left Srebrenica in an armed column which headed off into the woods, never to be seen again. Hiding her face in a cotton veil, Izeta Memic, said: "My husband Sevko kissed the children and then was gone. He didn't know where he was going and nor did we."

As Izeta was speaking a new voice had moved to the stadium microphone, encouraging the women to remember the plight of women everywhere - to remember the women who battled for equality in South Africa, in Ireland and in Argentina. But now the faces around the stadium slump forward once again, confused and dazed. "All women have the same hearts," said Mila Ahmematobic. "But these words mean nothing to us. We just want to find our men. We want to know what happened. We feel we have been betrayed and nobody can help us."

Emma Bonino, the European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, told the women of Srebrenica they would never be forgotten and urged them not to give up hope. But many women here had bitter memories of the European Union's failure to help them during their conflict. "We are European. Mrs Bonino comes from Brussels, which is just two hours away. What did Europe do to help us," asked one young male survivor of the massacre.