The horror of the lost souls of Srebrenica

Bosnia: As questions are asked about how Muslims were armed, the victims of a nine-month-old slaughter lie still unburied
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Mratinci - The bodies, stripped of their flesh by marauding animals but still wearing tattered rags, are scattered on the forested hilltop where they fell. From the clothing, it can be seen that some are civilians, others are soldiers, possibly 500 of them lying sprawled amid blackened vegetation.

All were victims of the terrified Muslim flight from the nearby UN "safe haven" of Srebrenica last July, as men, women and children plunged into the surrounding hills to escape the approach of the Bosnian Serb Army.

They have lain here since with no one to bury them or, apparently, to ask how they died, although some among the nearby Serb villagers are willing to talk or guide visitors to the spot an hour's climb away.

Milos, 72, said: "They passed by our positions. The first Muslim who surrendered told us that 14,500 had set out from Srebrenica and there were just 500 of us [Serbs] on our line. I told him he must have meant 1,450 ... People say just 3,000 of the 14,500 got through."

The fall of Srebrenica, almost at the end of the three-and-a-half-year Bosnian war, still haunts the conscience of all sides in the conflict, and of the United Nations which stood by and allowed it to happen. The Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic and his commander, General Ratko Mladic, face war crimes charges as a result of it. Their army is accused of having killed 3,000 unarmed Muslim prisoners it took and of bulldozing their bodies into mass graves which investigators want to excavate. Another 5,000 men from Srebrenica are missing, believed dead.

The people whose exodus ended on the hilltop at Mratinci had left Srebrenica, nine miles to the south-east, on the eve of the final Serb assault.They headed at night into rugged, hostile, Serb-held mountain country, toward the Bosnian government refuge of Tuzla, 40 miles to the north-west.

Milos said the refugees sent dogs running ahead to test the ground for mines. Zoran, 45, said they took shelter on the hilltop and added: "Some gave up and some fought on and tried to break through our lines."

According to the accounts, the Bosnian Serbs were pouring mortar fire on the Muslims. The bulk of the fighting took place around 11pm on 12 July. When it was over, an unknown number of Muslims were dead - certainly scores, possibly hundreds - and three Serbs.

"We went up there later and took weapons and clothes from the dead," Zoran said. "There were heavy machine-guns and mortars." Another local said: "Those who went later to the hills say there was a lot of new clothing, like at a fair. Our people went up there to collect the stuff. Two tractor- loads of weapons were collected."

Milos went up the hill three weeks after the killing. "You wouldn't believe it if you didn't see it for yourself," he said. "Dead people piled on top of each other."

Local people said American Nato peace-keepers deployed in eastern Bosnia this year have visited the site, but took no action to deal with the bodies. Reuter journalists who went to the site on Saturday found it carpeted with human remains, scraps of clothing, personal belongings such as toothbrushes and spent ammunition.

Because many skeletons had been broken up, it was not possible to count the number, but local people estimate that 500 died. At least 50 skulls glistened in the sunshine.

Beside a stream was the skeleton of a fully dressed man who looked as if he had been drinking the water when he died. Under a tree were eight other skeletons, one of them curled in a sleeping position. Littered among them were personal papers, including bank cards and passports bearing Muslim names.

A letter addressed to "Dear Nina and the rest of my family," said: "Just a brief message to you to say that we are alright but that it is more and more difficult to be without you. But all this must end sometime and we shall live together as before. Allah Imanet. All my love, Rasid."

t Tuzla - Six Muslim men from Srebrenica have walked to safety after nine months hiding in woods in Bosnian Serb territory, Reuter reports. The six arrived in Muslim-held Tuzla on Friday.The men spoke of walking along paths littered with corpses and eating food they found on their way. It took them 270 days to reach Muslim territory because they found their route to safety blocked every time before by Serb soldiers.

Letters, page 14 Jonathan Eyal, page 15