Summer terror, winter grief

Emma Daly meets a Muslim survivor of the Srebrenica massacre
THE PAST - bitter, cold and filled with death - is familiar ground for Hasib Ferhatovic, and he speaks readily of the horrors he faced on the four-month march to safety from the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. But ask about the future under the Dayton peace plan, and he is lost for words, his only desire an impossible resurrection of a life long gone.

Mr Ferhatovic left Srebrenica on 11 July in the full heat of a Balkan summer, joining a column of soldiers and civilians six miles long - perhaps 10,000 to 15,000 people - who struck out through enemy country for the safety of government-held territory. One hundred and thirty-one days later, Mr Ferhatovic and seven comrades crossed the front line. "We had heard from one group that he was alive, but we only believed that until the first snowfall. After that we lost hope," Fatima, his wife said.

She and her mother-in-law, also called Fatima, were evacuated from Srebrenica by the UN on 13 July, once the victorious Serb troops had seized the enclave they had besieged for three years. Mr Ferhatovic's father and two brothers, knowing they had no hope of a civilised departure, had joined the column walking out.

Two days out of Srebrenica, the refugee column was shattered by a barrage of Serb artillery: many were killed or wounded, many others taken prisoner. Some 300 Muslims, including Mr Ferhatovic, reached the village of Pobudza, then split into smaller groups in an attempt to escape detection. Neither his father nor his brothers were with him.

For 14 days, Mr Ferhatovic and seven companions worked their way slowly through forest before reaching Cerska, their home town, taken by the rebel Serbs in 1993. "We survived on fruit, apples and pears, snails and nettles," he said, pulling off his socks. "My feet are badly scarred - I had no boots. I still don't have any shoes."

The eight comrades moved into an abandoned water-mill, a half-hour walk from the cement floor that is all that remains of Mr Ferhatovic's house. The rest was burnt down, and the ruins mined. "We hid during the day from Chetnik [Serb] patrols and moved by night, finding food." Sometimes, the men scavenged cans of food from the bags of the dead who lay by the roadside in neighbouring villages.

They watched Serb soldiers escorting buses filled with civilians to a site nearby, heard the screams of the victims and the roar of earth-moving equipment. They think 700 people died there. They found a mass grave, heard rumours of more.

Cerska is a ghost town, the Muslim houses destroyed, so there was no danger from prying neighbours. But the men tracked the movements of Serb soldiers who patrolled the town daily, and seized upon the cigarette ends discarded by the enemy. Four months passed in this way - and then winter came.

"We knew we must move forward or go back," Mr Ferhatovic said, sitting in his brother's small house in Tinja, north of Tuzla. "We could not stay there and survive." So the group moved out, heading south-west by the course of the sun. "The worst moment came when we started to move through the mountains - it was the worst day of my life. We did not know where we were, we were so hungry and it was so cold, it was snowing."

Mr Ferhatovic was dressed in stolen Serb uniform - common enough in Bosnia, where the army began as a rag-tag force with neither guns nor kit - which enabled him to sidle unnoticed past a Serb soldier on guard. The long trek took six days - but at last they reached the front line.

"The Chetniks were shooting all day, but they stopped at nightfall, and we crossed the line. We didn't know where we were." Then, one of the group saw an empty packet of Drina cigarettes - made in Sarajevo.

"[The Bosnian soldiers] were a little surprised by my uniform, but when I explained everything they were very happy, and we kissed." They had reached the front-line town of Kladanj. The men choked down sandwiches - their first real food. "It was old bread, but we were so happy to eat it, and then the soldiers brought fresh bread and more food," Mr Ferhatovic said.

There was joy and anguish. "People told me my brothers and my father had not arrived. I was lost." As Mr Ferhatovic spoke, his mother wept. The room was filled with distress; 10 people, women and old men from Srebrenica, share the house. They too have lost husbands, sons, fathers. "We have heard nothing about them. We were all in the column at the beginning. . ." Mr Ferhatovic paused. "Probably they were caught by the Chetniks and killed by them. We have heard nothing."

Outside children dressed almost in summer clothing played in the snow, teenage girls washed clothes in cold water, old men chopped wood. Perhaps the scene helps to explain Mr Ferhatovic's ability to endure, physically. Some in his group had rifles and thought of suicide; but together, the eight survived, encouraged by one another.

Under the Dayton peace deal, the Serbs will keep control of Srebrenica and Cerska; in theory, Mr Ferhatovic and his family have the right to return home or to receive just compensation. In reality, that cannot happen. He has little to say about the peace deal brokered over the weekend he reached safety.

"For me, it is over. I have lost two brothers, a father, 10 neighbours have disappeared," he said. "It's the same for me," added his wife, cuddling Mevleta, the 19-month-old baby born as a refugee in Srebrenica. "I would like all those who disappeared to come back. I would like to return to Cerska, but we want our people back alive." Too many of Srebrenica's victims will know only the peace of the grave: four months on, more than 8,000 people, 20 per cent of the wartime population, are still missing. They cannot all be hiding in the woods.