Zepa's survivors stumble to safety

BOSNIA CRISIS: REFUGEES
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The Independent Online
The first 1,500 Muslims cleansed from Zepa reached friendly territory at dawn yesterday, exhausted and shell-shocked.

"I was a normal person before that offensive but now I'm so terrified I don't know what to say, what to do," said Miralem, a gaunt middle-aged man on crutches who, like other refugees arriving in Sarajevo, refused to give his real name.

A tough old man who carried his seriously ill wife three miles seeking medical care sat in Kosevo hospital in Sarajevo pondering his losses. His son, four daughters, 13 grandsons and three great-grandsons remained in Zepa when the enclave fell on Tuesday. "Everything I have is there. When I left with my wife, who could not walk, everyone cried - if she was not sick I would have stayed to fight," he said.

The two men and a third companion said they saw evidence of Yugoslav army involvement, including Serbian licence-plates and the shoulder flashes of the White Eagles, a paramilitary group renowned for brutality.

"The men of Zepa [famous for withstanding the German army in the Second World War] never lost a fight till now," said the second man, whose town was defended, he said, by men armed only with rifles and light machine- guns. "There were tanks, all kinds of artillery, a lot of soldiers from Serbia. We just could not stand it any more."

The town's soldiers fled into the hills with their weapons rather than surrender to General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander indicted on war crimes charges this week.

The third man described the "immense pressure" to leave. "By the end the fighters were surrounded on three sides and they could no longer resist."

As the refugees waited for evacuation, Gen Mladic paid a visit. "He said he had issued orders than no one could molest us," said the second man. "But I don't believe that, I think he was trying to soften us up to trick the others to come out."

Gen Mladic met Lt-Gen Rupert Smith, the British UN commander in Bosnia, for the second day running in Zepa yesterday as the UN made frantic attempts to organise the evacuation of up to 7,000 people and avert a repeat of the horror of Srebrenica. "The Bosnian Serbs were keen to ensure the Zepa 'cleansing' operation was less offensive than it had been in Srebrenica," Alex Ivanko, a UN spokesman, said yesterday.

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