Tuzla - The Serbs had promised that the prisoners would be exchanged. But as he clambered off a truck with other Muslim captives, Hurem Suljic encountered a green hillside covered with bodies. In the next hours, first under the July sun and then by the headlights of two excavators, as many as 3,000 Muslim men captured when Serbs overran the east Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica were mowed down. Those who did not die immediately were killed by pistol shots to the head.
Only three men are known to have survived, one of them Mr Suljic, 54,a disabled bricklayer. Their accounts of the massacre provide a key link in evidence of Serb atrocities after the enclave fell. They point not only to a previously unsuspected massacre site, but also place the Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, at the scene.
The Red Cross has said 8,000 of the 42,000 people in Srebrenica before its fall remain unaccounted for. US intelligence photos have indicated mass graves around Nova Kasaba, west of Srebrenica. Madeleine Albright, US ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council as many as 2,700 people might be buried there.
Journalists have reported evidence of human remains: Serbs suggest they are those of of 3,000 Bosnian government soldiers killed defending Srebrenica. But the story told by the survivors, interviewed separately, points to a different explanation. They have spoken to Bosnian government investigators gathering information to present to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, which has already indicted Gen Mladic as a suspected war criminal.
As Srebrenica fell, its people could hope UN soldiers could protect them, or try to escape west through Serb-held forests to government territory.
Mr Suljic thought the Serbs would have no use for a bricklayer with a bad leg, and joined thousands of others - mostly women and children - seeking refuge at the main UN base. But Serbs occupied it and while Dutch peace-keepers watched helplessly, separated several hundred men, including Mr Suljic, and shut them in a warehouse. He said some 100 were taken away the first day.
The next day Gen Mladic visited and said they would be exchanged for Serbs. But instead of heading to the front line, they were taken to a sweltering sports hall in Krizevci, 22 miles north of Srebrenica.
Through the night, bus after bus arrived. On one was Mevludin Oric, 25, a soldier captured as he fled through the woods. Mr Oric said his captors were driving UN vehicles. Mr Suljic said he counted four to five men to a square yard, a total of 2,400 to 3,000. Gen Mladic appeared again on 14 July, three days after the fall of Srebrenica. "We started yelling at him, 'Why are you suffocating us here? Better kill us all'." Finally, the prisoner exchange was said to be ready. Groups were taken and placed in two trucks, 10 to 15 men in each.
"We went a bit up the hill, slowly," Mr Suljic said. "The sound of some machines was becoming louder and louder ... The truck turned left and stopped in the grass. We saw a field covered with bodies. They ordered us to come out and line up with our backs to the soldiers, and our faces to the field of bodies."
There were two firing-squads of five soldiers each. Mr Suljic was in the first row, with two rows of prisoners between him and the Serb guns. "I could hear automatic gunfire. They fell on me, and I fell on my stomach. But I wasn't hit," he said.
Mr Oric was with a cousin, who grabbed his hand as they got into a truck shortly after Mr Suljic. When they saw the killing-field, "my cousin grabbed my hand again and said, 'Mevlo, they're going to kill us'," Mr Oric said. As the shooting began he dived to the ground. "I didn't move. I stayed lying there for nine hours."
In intervals between the shooting a Serb walked among the bodies and finished off those still moving with a pistol shot to the head, both survivors said. At one point, Mr Suljic said, Gen Mladic appeared near by. "He took a look and left quickly." Group by group, trucks brought prisoners, who were shot in turn. When it became dark, the soldiers used headlights of the two diggers.
Finally the shooting stopped, and Mr Oric heard a voice saying the dead would not be buried that night. But guards refused to stay the night, and all the Serbs eventually left.
Mr Suljic stood and looked around. Moonlight illuminated "a sea of bodies". He tried to shout "Is there anybody alive? If there is someone, get up, and let's go." It came out as a whisper. But it was loud enough for Mr Oric, lying 20 yards away. As he stood, he said, "The only thing I saw was dead people all over the place ... I got very scared and started crying. I couldn't stop. This man came to me, it was Hurem, and he asked if I was wounded."
Stepping over bodies, the two headed into the forest. In the morning, they reached a burned-out village. Stopping to pick apples, they saw a man ahead. It was Smail Hodzic, the third known survivor. They climbed a hill, oriented themselves, and began walking towards government positions. Three days later, they crossed a minefield at the front line and were met by Bosnian soldiers.Reuse content