Srebrenica Serbs in denial
by Julius Strauss
For Mustafa Sehic and Vahdet Alic, today's appearance by Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague comes almost six years too late. Their bones lie scattered across an east Bosnian hillside, long ago stripped of their flesh by woodland animals scavenging for food.
Before Milosevic came to power in the late 1980s in a frenzy of Serb nationalism, both were Yugoslav children barely out of their teens growing up in the peaceful silver-mining town of Srebrenica. In 1995 they were among the estimated 7,000 Muslim men and boys rounded up and massacred by Bosnian Serbs in a three-day orgy of killing.
Mustafa and Vahdet probably died during the night of 12 or 13 July, after the Bosnian Serbs stormed the United Nations-declared safe haven, ignoring token resistance by Dutch peacekeepers. All through that autumn their bodies lay in the mountain meadow hidden from view. Around them, the corpses of dozens more Srebrenica men rotted in the sun. It was the largest massacre in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War. Milosevic so far faces only charges related to Kosovo. UN prosecutors hope to extend the indictment to include Srebrenica and other war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia.
In the region itself, change has been extremely slow. A handful of Muslim families have returned to the town where Serb nationalists continue to hold sway. But talk of the massacre is still taboo among Serbs, many of whom still feel they are the primary victims of the war. They refuse to admit that thousands of Muslims were butchered nearby.
Interspersed among the houses of Kravice, a few miles across the hills from Srebrenica, are the burnt-out shells of homes where Muslims used to live. Yesterday, the valley was almost deserted except for a farmer driving oxen along a lane. Another farmer, a Serb, stood outside his house watching suspiciously. Asked about the bodies of the Muslims on the hillside, he shrugged. The track that leads up the hill to where the remains of Mustafa and Vahdet still lie was thick with mud and even in four-wheel drive our vehicle slid dangerously on the steep incline. As it bogged down an old Serb woman rounded the corner with a young girl. She said: ‘You should go back. There is nobody up there, nobody at all.’
But there were bodies as far as the eye could see from the top of the hill. Some lay where they had fallen, others had been broken up by animals, their bones scattered. The possessions lying around them told of their final hours. There were empty food tins, the remains of humanitarian aid, one showing the twelve stars of the European Union. There was also a green bandage pack and a broken pair of glasses. A tobacco tin was engraved with the nickname Suljo. Some corpses still had their old Yugoslav identity cards in their pockets. Mustafa was born on 1 August 1973, Vahdet on 8 January 1969.
Down below in the idyllic, green valley that runs from Srebrenica to the main Sarajevo-Belgrade road Serbs have moved back into their tiny villages. They ignore the burnt-out Muslim houses around them and even among themselves seldom talk of the bodies on the hillside. If there were bodies, they were of soldiers, they said, although the evidence was clearly to the contrary. In the end some even begin to believe their own lies, ignoring the civilian clothes and the fact that some corpses still have their hands tied with wire.
This article appeared in The Daily Telegraph (London),
3 July 2001