To starve or be shot by Serbs: Evacuation in shreds: an exclusive report from Haris Nezirovic in Srebrenica

LIKE most of Srebrenica's 60,000 inhabitants, Osmo Ferhat desperately wants to get out of town.

Mr Ferhat is 63. He has been a refugee in eastern Bosnia for almost a year. Before that he was in a Serbian detention camp, where his captors regularly pummelled his kidneys: he still can't urinate without a catheter and sometimes passes blood. He needs medical attention unavailable in besieged Srebrenica. But he cannot leave and it is not just the armed Serbs surrounding the town who are stopping him; Mr Ferhat's fellow Muslims are trying to stop a United Nations evacuation.

The UN hopes to evacuate 15,000 people over the next few days. The Muslim command defending Srebrenica claims the UN operations amount to complicity in Serbian 'ethnic cleansing'. Privately, the commanders add, they believe that the Serbs will not launch an all-out attack as long as refugees are there. More importantly, they say that without the civilians the defence of the town would crumble. They believe that Muslim fighters are better motivated when their families are there behind them.

'I saw it in Cerska,' said a battalion commander who fought there until the Muslim enclave fell to Serbs last month. 'When the women and children were evacuated, the soldiers packed their rucksacks and hardly waited for a stronger attack to find a reason to withdraw. It should not have been allowed to happen.'

What this means in practice is thousands of civilians will have to remain, in full range of Serbian guns: children with scabies who cannot be treated because of a lack of medicine; the elderly who are so weak from hunger that they cannot fight for air-dropped scraps of food; and mothers who feed their babies with warm water because nothing else is available.

Those trapped include Meliha Gerovic, who is 15. Her home was destroyed a year ago, and she lives in a school filled by 700 people. She goes from house to house, begging for food, but people drive her from their doors. She wants to leave. So, probably, does Bevludin Mujucic, though he is mentally retarded and cannot express his wishes. His hair is covered with lice and his face is pale.

In a room with 30 people, Mirsada Kostirovic has labour pains. She sleeps on the floor and will have nowhere else to give birth. Her four-year-old son has a hernia, but doctors cannot treat him or her other children, who have scabies. They all want to leave.

The Bosnian command opposed the UN evacuation from the beginning but, not realising how many people might leave, did little to stop it. When the first UN trucks came last month, they were supposed to evacuateonly a few wounded, but hundreds rushed on board. When the next convoy came on 28 March, thousands stampeded towards the vehicles.

'We'll screw up those convoys,' said Naser Oric, the local Muslim commander. In another life, before the war, he was a bodyguard to Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic. 'It cannot go on like this any more. The fighters are leaving front lines to put their families (on the trucks).'

When another convoy came on 30 March, masses of civilians surrounded the trucks but were kept back by the commanders' personal guard - a group of 30 foul- mouthed soldiers suspected of robberies and other crimes. During the night, the guards accepted bribes in German marks to let people on board. Many refugees on the UN list for evacuation were beaten up. Witnesses said the deputy commander slapped and kicked women and pushed children from the trucks.

On 4 April the local police used fire hoses to keep people away from the UN vehicles. Jets of water knocked down anyone who approached. Soldiers climbed on the trucks and fired into the air. 'You're keeping the guns to save these trucks, while the front lines are empty. You dirty bastards. Shame on you,' shouted an old man in the crowd.

Ever more frequently, you hear civilians say, 'Our soldiers are worse than Chetniks (the Serbs)'. They want to surrender. Why? 'Because to starve to death or to be slaughtered by the Serbs doesn't make any difference.'

(Photograph omitted)