'River killings' shed light on scale of horror after the fall of Srebrenica

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The Independent Online
The exact whereabouts and the fate of Resid Halilovic are unknown. But the story of this one Bosnian Muslim could be an important clue to the destiny of thousands still missing from the Srebrenica enclave. It also appears to indicate that Belgrade is more involved in Bosnia than President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia admits.

On the afternoon of Saturday 15 July, four days after Bosnian Serbs overran Srebrenica, Mr Halilovic was discovered lying in the shallow water on the Bosnian side of the Drina river, badly bleeding and screaming for help. "I am dying. Please help me," he was reported to have shouted at a crowd on the Serbian side of the river.

During the hot months of summer, the rocky banks of the Drina are a magnet for people looking to cool off or to spend a quiet day fishing. However, for the last two weeks, the river has held a more lurid fascination for people living around Serbian town of Loznica.

In the days after Srebrenica fell, residents reported seeing "truckloads" of men being brought to shallow pits dug on the other side of the riverbank and shot by Bosnian Serb soldiers. "Dozens of people stood on a hill here and watched this," said one Serb from the area who did not want to be identified. "Last week I saw, with my own eyes, 50 men shot as they were forced to jump off the back of a truck into a pit."

Around the same time, people reported seeing bloated corpses in the river. According to one resident of Loznica, at least 10 bodies were fetched from the Drina last week. People stopped fishing and swimming around this time, but the curious were undeterred. These were the people who found Mr Halilovic.

Several Serbs crossed the river to rescue the man. They threw him into a car and drove him to the clinic in the nearby spa town of Banja Koviljaca. One witness said he saw what he thought were four bullet wounds in the victim's chest.

Staff from the clinic yesterday confirmed that a Muslim from Srebrenica by the name of Resid Halilovic had been brought to the clinic at around 3pm on 15 July with several chest wounds. They said his condition was such that he could only be properly treated in the Loznica hospital, several kilometres down the road.

At the Loznica Medical Centre, a team of surgeons yesterday shifted uncomfortably in their seats when asked if an injured Muslim from Srebrencia had been treated there. At first, the doctors denied all knowledge of the man. Only after it was made clear that the clinic in Banja Koviljaca had let the cat out of the bag did the doctors have a flash of recollection.

"Oh yes," said one doctor, "There was a Muslim from Srebrenica brought here. He was only lightly wounded in the arm and the leg."

"What about the chest wounds? "Oh yeah, that's right, I remember, there were chest wounds, but they were superficial."

None of the doctors, even the chief surgeon on the day, admitted seeing the injured man, whom they claimed was the former chief of police of Muslim Srebrenica.

"All we know is that he was brought here with superficial wounds. His wounds were cleaned, bandages were applied and then the Serbian police took him to Bijeljina [in Serb-held Bosnia]," said the chief surgeon, who asked that his name should not be used because he feared "Muslim reprisals".

"I don't know exactly where he was taken. We were told he was going to be exchanged [for Serb prisoners held by the Muslims]. These are political questions. We did our part. The rest is politics," the doctor said.

The doctor's claim that Serbian authorities handed an injured Muslim back to the Bosnian Serbs amid growing reports of extra-judicial executions of Muslim prisoners of war raises questions over Belgrade's assertions that Serbia has no role in the continuing Bosnian carnage.

Officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Belgrade said they are aware of several cases of Muslims from Srebrenica who fled across the Drina to Serbia only to be handed back to the Bosnian Serbs and an uncertain fate. Thousands of men from Srebrenica were taken prisoner by the Bosnian Serbs after their "liberation" of the Muslim enclave on 11 July. Some estimates of prisoners executed are as high as 4,000.

Srebrenica was always more than just another Muslim "blot" on the landscape for the Serbs to conquer. Muslim soldiers from Srebrenica were effective fighters and on several occasions during the war managed to break out of the enclave and raze several nearby villages, killing many Serb civilians in the process.

The Serb desire for revenge was strong. In an April 1993, the Bosnian Serbs compiled a list of 231 names of political and military leaders and soldiers whom they accused of war crimes and the deaths of 684 Serbs in the region. After the fall of Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serbs said they had detained all the men of fighting age to screen out the "war criminals".

Mr Halilovic's name bears so striking a resemblance to that of a Srebrenica military official, Resad Halilovic, who figures prominently on the list, that he may be the same man. While it is not impossible that Mr Halilovic was injured and escaped from Srebrenica during the fighting for the town, his wounds and whereabouts at the time of his discovery also suggest that he could have been a survivor of an attempted summary execution.

Loznica is some 35 miles down river from the Srebrenica area. The entire Drina valley is among the most solidly Serb-held areas in eastern Bosnia. Since the fall of Srebrenica, it is also one of the heaviest patrolled, making it highly unlikely that Mr Halilovic made it to the area under his own power.

The doctors in the Loznica hospital said they did not know how Mr Halilovic was injured and refused to speculate about his fate. However, one said it was well known that "there were no civilians in Srebrenica, only warriors".

He added: "Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.''