Refugee women 'see menfolk shot'

BOSNIA Thousands flee from Srebrenica to Tuzla, bringing stories of roadside atrocities
Click to follow
"WHY does the world give everything away so cleanly?" said the old man, with bitter emphasis on the word "cleanly". He was too old to be considered dangerous, even by the Bosnian Serbs who, in their biggest and fastest example of ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian war, have swept an estimated 30,000 unwanted women, children and old men like so much debris into the Muslim heartland of central Bosnia. But they have kept back thousands of young men and women in "liberated Srebrenica".

Yesterday in the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla, which is overwhelmed with refugees, dozens of dirty hands clawed upwards trying to grab a yogurt, a lemon, or a cucumber being thrown to the sweaty, shouting throng of women.

Ajka Husic didn't join the fray. She stood by, crying silently at the recollection of her 19-year-old son being put on display by Serb conquerors."I saw him, I saw my son captured and lying there with his hands tied behind his head," she said.

Travelling in a bus packed with refugees from the fallen UN "safe area" of Srebrenica, Mrs Husic spotted her boy, Fikret, among the men sprawled along the road, some captive, some dead. "The Serbs stopped the bus and told us: 'Look, this is your army,' and I looked at them and I saw him. I screamed and called his name, but he couldn't hear me."

It was common knowledge in the refugee camp near Tuzla airport that Muslim men had been rounded up in the woods as they attempted to flee the advancing Serbs. With each new busload of refugees came fresh reports. Someone had seen someone's husband or brother or son lying by the side of the road, or being led away by Serb soldiers, or being shot. Refugees told of women being dragged away and raped, civilians being shot and young boys being plucked from transports.

These tales of horror cannot be confirmed. Bosnian Serbs refused access to international organisations and to journalists, including most Bosnian Serb reporters.

The 400 Dutch UN troops in the enclave had been confined to their base in nearby Potocari or detained in two Serb-held towns nearby. "We have no eyes and ears," the Dutch Defence Minister, Joris Voorhoeve, said.

Even if they couldn't be immediately verified, the many tales - nearly every refugee had one - would be recorded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said testimonies were being gathered. The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, in the Netherlands, was also investigating. Semsudin Hasanbegovic, head of Tuzla's emergency headquarters, said Bosnian authorities had received information that about 400 men were being held in two concentration camps in Bratunac and Konjevic Polje.

"At the moment we have no very clear picture. Very soon, we'll know more about it," said the UNHCR spokeswoman, Monique Tuffelli. "What we know is that their suffering is not finished with this exodus, because they lost part of their family, and have a very uncertain future."

On Friday, more than 13,000 women, children, and old men were in the field surrounding the airbase; the air was filled with cries and whimpers. About 60 per cent of the refugees were children, aid officials said.

The refugees tore branches from spindly trees and bushes to shade themselves against the burning sun in the day and build campfires for warmth at night. There were not enough blankets to go around. No toilets, too few doctors and medicine, not enough water.

Those with the strength to wash used a stream where others were defecating, increasing the danger of disease.

But what concerned the refugees most was the whereabouts of their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers. As her sons, aged two and five, slept fitfully beside her, Zarfija, 22, said quietly that she did not expect to see her husband again. He had fled with Srebrenica's lightly armed Muslim defenders.

Like Ajka Husic, she had seen the bodies of men she recognised from her village, Slatina, on the bus ride to Tuzla.

"The bodies were just lying there. A few of them were still alive, also lying down. I know they were all among those who fled to the woods," she said.

"My man will never manage to find a way out. There is no way out, Serbs are everywhere."

Yesterday morning, the UN began busing coachloads of refugees out of the provisional tent encampment at Tuzla airbase to a "collective centre" 30 miles away, in a school at Gracanica. The UN and the Bosnian government had a strategy, at least: to get the refugees out of the reception camp and away to dispersed sites where they were easier to care for, before the next wave arrived.

All the refugees had left Srebrenica four or five days before. It had taken them three days to reach Kladanj, the town to the south where, after walking about six miles through the front line area, they had emerged among their co-religionists and supposed friends. They had then spent two days in the Tuzla camp, a huge area round the longest runway in the former Yugoslavia. To reach it, you drive past hardened aircraft shelters and wrecked aircraft, and eventually reach a temporary camp which looks more like Africa than Europe. Families huddle around flimsy shelters, and there is rubbish everywhere. The contrast with the better- established camp, run by the UN and other non-governmental organisations, with 700 tents, is marked.

Fatima Begic, a woman in her thirties, was with her two children, Ibro and Ibrama. Her husband was still in Srebrenica. She said the Serbs were lying about how many people they had let go. "More women and children are staying there than have left," she said. The green-uniformed Bosnian police patrolling the camp with automatic rifles tried to calm the refugees, though the mountain people of Srebrenica have little in common with the urban people of Tuzla.

The UNHCR, the umbrella body which works with many non-governmental organisations here, has fought valiantly to cope with the influx, and cooperation with the Bosnian authorities is beginning to improve. At about 7.30am, 10 coaches headed out of the great airfield camp for Gracanica, which may be the refugees' last stop for a long time. A local baker distributed fresh bread on the coaches and plastic containers of water were provided from nearby houses. The drivers managed to procure beer for later. A young woman in the long pantaloons favoured by Muslim women in Bosnia was standing with her son in the doorway of one coach, looking bitterly tired, sunburnt and resigned.

It was the kind of scene which, 50 years after the Second World War, Europe did not expect to see again. These are people who have lived much as we live. Yet they were glad for a crust of bread and a drop of water.