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REGIONAL REPORT: Srebrenica Survivors Fear Return

Six years after the Srebrenica massacres, survivors say they can't return while perpetrators still roam the streets
By Amra Kebo

A foundation stone for a memorial to the Srebrencia victims is due to be laid in a meadow just outside the tragic town today, July 11.


Six years ago to the day, some 40,000 Bosnian Muslims were gathered at the spot as Bosnian Serb forces occupied the UN protected area. Over the next few days, tens of thousands of women and children were deported from the area. Over 7,500 men and boys were murdered.


Many of the men allegedly involved in the murders still roam the streets of the town, "small fry" so far passed over by the war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Srebrenica survivors say they can't contemplate returning to their homes while these men walk free.


Less than 200 metres away from the Srebrenica memorial - where some of the mass executions took place - are the foundations of a Serbian Orthodox church. Construction work came to a halt last year following the intervention of the The Office of the High Representative, but the site remains a constant reminder that Serb extremists in the area still seek to defy history and present the capture of Srebrenica as a triumph in the campaign for Greater Serbia.


Srebrenica itself is a ghost town, neglected and dirty. There's no supply of clean drinking water. The town has changed little since the end of the war, although a new municipal building, primary school, clinic and fire station have been built.


The only real change to the skyline is a huge Serbian Orthodox cross, planted high above the old town, which has become part of the nationalist post-war folklore in Srebrenica - a symbol typically found in "ethnically-cleansed" towns.


Srebrenica is now home to Serbs from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Over 1,200 are refugees from Sarajevo. Another 1,837 are from villages in the Srebrenica area - families burnt out of their homes during the war and now with nowhere else to live.


When asked about the proposed memorial for the Srebrenica victims and return of Muslims to the town, opinions are mixed.


"It would be better to build a memorial once the Muslims have come back, " said one Serb newcomer. " To do it the other way round, I'm afraid, will only infuriate the extremists." Another expressed a more commonly heard view. "This is no place for Turks," he said bluntly.


Moderate Serbs cannot express their views freely for fear of extremists. Those prepared to talk to IWPR spoke of their disgust that many of the people responsible for killings in Srebrenica appear to have profited well from their brutality.


Meanwhile, most of the Serbs in Srebrenica struggle to survive. They eke out a living on humanitarian aid handouts, small-scale farming, smuggling and the sale of property, which often belongs to expelled Bosniaks.


The so-called "war-profiteers" live well on the booty they accumulated during the conflict. "These criminals come to work here in Srebrenica, but sleep in Serbia," one local Serb complained. " Everything is in their hands." The man and his family now live in a flat, which once belonged to Bosniaks.


International officials working in the town believe a multi-ethnic police force is essential if the process of returning people to Srebrenica is to be speeded up. But to date only one Bosniak has joined the service.


Meanwhile, Srebrenica women have a clear message for The Hague tribunal - arrest and punish those directly involved in the killings and who currently walk the streets of Srebrenica as free men. That would bring some justice, they say, and would remove one of the biggest obstacles to Bosniaks returning to Srebrenica.


"People like Karadzic and Mladic ought to be put on trial, but so should those extremists who killed and slaughtered and now walk freely around Srebrenica, Bratunac and Vlasenica," said Munira Subasic, president of Sarajevo-based Movement for the Mothers of the Enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa.


The war crimes tribunal, however, is concentrating on those who gave the orders. The men directly responsible for the crimes, the so-called "small fry", the tribunal says, should be tried in local courts.


Escorted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Srebrenica women make regular trips to their home town, and often come across people who terrorised their community.


"We're always coming across them during our visits," said one woman. "Srebrenica is a small town and we all know each other. I have no desire to talk to those people, but I am also scared.


"The fact that they have spent all these years at large, means they've been rewarded for the slaughter they committed. There will be no reconciliation before these local extremists are caught and punished. Nor will it be possible for us to return until that's done."


Kada Hodzic agrees. Her husband's body was recently recovered from a mass grave near Zvornik. Her brother-in-law survived, but lost his two sons.


In June, he was chatting to a local Serb in a café during a trip to the town. The latter pointed out another customer, claiming he had murdered the two boys. Kada said the man immediately left the café.


She said it was inconceivable that she could return to Srebrenica and live side by side with such people.


The Srebrenica women want all those who committed crimes brought to justice. Karadzic and Mladic should be first in the queue, they say, but the "small fry" need to be brought to book too. Until Srebrenica is free of these extremists, the women say a return would be too distressing and dangerous.


Amra Kebo is an IWPR assistant editor in Bosnia, and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.


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