The guns have stopped firing, but the war goes on

One year after the ceasefire, Robert Fisk returns to the killing fields of the former Yugoslavia. His first report comes from Srebrenica, scene of mass slaughter
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The Independent Online
The place is haunted. The mouldering buildings, the broken glass, the smashed factories in which young Muslims had their throats cut just 14 months ago stand as mute witnesses to savagery. On one factory wall, a man wrote his name, "EMIR", in capital letters, a Muslim name. Probably he is in a mass grave down the road.

At Potocari lies the evidence of the West's shame and humiliation: a great concrete block, partly overgrown but still white-painted and bearing the clear words: "UN HQ DUTCHBAT". The gate lies open, the refuse of the Dutch battalion - those who stood by as the thousands were taken away for the slaughter - still litters the UN's abandoned watchtowers, its mess and headquarters offices, its medical post and its commanding officer's billet.

And now the Serbs - those who will forever be associated with the name of Srebrenica - have stuffed this terrible place with their own refugees, men and women and children who fled homes in Muslim towns and cities in the last days of the Bosnian war.

They did not suffer as the Muslims of Srebrenica suffered, but the newcomers have no reason to love the ghosts among whom they now live. In a town of martyrs, the terror of the previous inhabitants has been replaced by the pain of Srebrenica's new citizens. And when you walk the streets of this damp, cold place, you understand the truth about the Dayton agreement: that while the guns are no longer firing, the war goes on.

The local Serb police do not like journalists but we had driven to Srebrenica with one of those wounded families who beg for lifts on every road in Bosnia; a sick little girl, her hungry mother and a grandmother who admitted - half an hour into our journey - that her brothers had both been shot dead at the front. A few minutes later, she added, almost as an afterthought, that her husband had been killed by a shell in Sarajevo.

The family, of course, were Serbs. "How do we know what happened here?" the mother asked, not entirely honestly I thought but, as she said, she had her own problems. "All our friends are scattered. We came from Zenica before we were driven out and then we had to leave Sarajevo. This place ..." and she paused in an uncomfortable way, "well, it's a closed sort of place. There's not enough electricity to run the refrigerator. You can't even make a cup of coffee. Telephones? You must be joking with me. Our home is damp all through."

I felt like saying, but who are we to stand on moral ground? I felt like saying that the previous occupants of their grubby apartment must have found it damp too, starving there for three terrible years before the end came and the menfolk were taken away forever. But the little girl, Nevena, felt sick - she had been travelling all day on a cold bus from the Serb town of Derventa - so I opened the window and stopped the car. Through the soft, thick rain, we could see the entrance gate of the old UN camp at Potocari. Here it was - and I recognised the exact location from the Serb television tape - that General Ratko Mladic reassured the people of Srebrenica that no harm would come to them. The barbed wire that the Dutch troops laid so trustfully around the camp to protect, as they naively thought, the thousands of terror-stricken Muslims remains, heavy with rust, the rags of sheets and clothes still flapping mournfully in the rain.

Inside this place of ignominy, the wreckage of the UN's honour was still intact. The watch towers stood with UN painted on the side - I climbed into one and found a heap of Dutch documents lying on the floor. The main phone lines were still intact. There were easy chairs and benches for the outdoor cafe and, just inside the headquarters, a list of instructions for dialling home to Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The Dutch, one couldn't help thinking, knew how to look after themselves at Srebrenica. Massive concrete slabs, protection against Serb shells, remain in place around Lieutenant Colonel Kerremans' old offices. A middle-aged man was picking potatoes in a field next to the factory. "UNPROFOR," he shouted at me and hooted with laughter.

The factory is already infamous. Here Muslim men were shot and here a woman was taken for rape, and somewhere in the factory's dank interior at least three women hanged themselves. In the narrow town - and how claustrophobic it still feels, the squalid streets hemmed in like a half-opened book between the sides of the valley and the forests through which the Muslims fled in their thousands - a few Serb peasants were selling cabbage and toothpaste from wooden stands. They were grey-faced with cold. Old men were coughing on the frozen balconies of refugee shacks, places of thick blue smoke from wood fires and of dripping roofs. "We don't know what is what," a girl said when I asked her if she understood the enormity of what happened here. "The world exaggerates. Nobody said anything when we were killed. We had 20 funerals a night." And she drew heavily on a dirty cigarette.

The only new building in town is a post office where the Serbs - despite the words of Nevena's mother - had connected a set of telephone lines to the outside world. A young woman refugee from Sarajevo - a schoolteacher now in the Kosovo capital of Pristina - described the sullen despair that lay across the town. "Nothing to do, no future, no life," she said, and shrugged. I remarked that Kosovo had its own problems. "Maybe, but I want to live there," she said. "My father was threatened in Sarajevo, that's why we had to come here." And would she teach members of the Muslim majority in Pristina if she stayed in Kosovo? "No," she said with a smile. She was not a bad woman; she spoke beautiful English, wanted to talk. But there was a blandness about what this place meant.

She was like the two girls we drove towards Bratunac. Here it was that the execution squads worked through the night in a yard. Everyone in Bratunac must have known. But the girls were all ignorance. "Terrible things happen in war," one of them said, a poor woman with a terrible scar on her face about which I dared not ask.

Then there was the army nurse who worked at the military hospital at Han Pijesak. In the mountains above this village, the Muslims fleeing Srebrenica were cut down in their hundreds, screaming from mortal wounds, executed, pleading with their friends to kill them when their legs and arms were torn off by Serb grenades. There must have been a lot of shooting in these woods last year, I said carefully. "Probably," she replied. She wanted history to pass her by.

Yet history is passing us all by. The road whose verges were once lined with dead men and prisoners awaiting execution, their clothes scattered over the fields, the streams scattered with men whose throats were cut, have been cleansed as surely as Srebrenica.

The highway is marked with a new white line, its verges neatly trimmed. The great forests with a thousand shades of green sway in the rain, hissing with the wind that moves gently down from Nova Kasaba, the little village where the Muslims of Srebrenica were lined up in their thousands at the execution pits.

"When I think of what happened, I don't feel well," a Serb lady, a woman of honour who acknowledged privately what we both knew to be true. "I would not ever want to walk in those woods."

"None of us would," I said.