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Srebrenica's Missing Men Dead, U.N. Told

February 05, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — After seven months of agonizing uncertainty over the fate of the thousands of men and boys who disappeared after the fall of the "safe area" of Srebrenica, the women refugees from the Muslim enclave were given an answer: "Those that are missing are not alive."

That somber report was relayed by U.N. human rights envoy Elizabeth Rehn, who pressed the women's case in talks with local Serbian officials during a visit Sunday to the village, which was taken by Bosnian Serb fighters in July.

Up to 7,000 Muslim men and boys are presumed to have been killed and dumped into mass graves by Bosnian Serb forces following the capture of Srebrenica, a town nestled in the foothills of eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina. Although the enclave was being protected by U.N. forces, the peacekeepers were no match for the Bosnian Serb combatants determined to take over the town and flush out all Muslim inhabitants.

A local Bosnian Serb official, Miroslav Deronic, told Rehn that there are no survivors being detained or working in forced labor. The men of Srebrenica, he said, were killed in battles after the capture of the town.

Witnesses, however, have told of coldblooded massacres--and human rights groups have characterized the deaths as the worst war crime in Europe since World War II. Rehn said that the officials' claims that all the men are dead will have to be independently verified.

Seven months after the Serbian siege, Srebrenica looks like a sprawling trash dump, with the remnants of the lives of the tens of thousands of Muslim families expelled from the town piled in muddy heaps everywhere. Filthy clothes, pieces of furniture and garbage clog the creek that flows through the town. Many of the buildings were damaged by shells or burned during the war.

Rehn said the devastation of Srebrenica and the human rights violations that apparently occurred during its capture were in some ways worse than what she witnessed in Beirut.

"Of course it raises the question of why must people do things like this to each other," said Rehn, who is from Finland. "I believe this has nothing to do with war, with military actions. This is just abuse of civilian people in a way that is absolutely unacceptable, and hopefully justice will come someday."

During the Serbian offensive, thousands of Muslim men and boys tried to make their way out of the town through the heavily forested foothills nearby, according to international observers. Other men who had gathered in the nearby village of Potocari were separated from the women and children and detained when their families were evacuated.

Of the thousands, only 200 were located by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Bosnian Serb prisons, and most of those have been released. The fate of the rest has yet to be documented, but international officials estimate that 6,000 to 7,000 are in mass graves in the region around Srebrenica.

Acting out the agony of their uncertainty, hundreds of women from Srebrenica have been angrily demonstrating in Tuzla, where U.S. forces participating in the international peacekeeping mission are based. They are demanding that the international community solve the mystery of the disappearance of their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands. On at least two occasions, their demonstrations have turned violent, with women heaving bricks through windows of the offices of the Red Cross and the local government.

Before visiting Srebrenica, Rehn met with representatives of the women, who begged her to check out rumors that some of their men are alive and working in forced labor.

On her tour of Srebrenica, she stopped at two of 10 addresses where the women believe the men might be. There was no sign of them at either place, one of which was a school and the other a store.

When journalists suggested that the stops were ridiculous because the local authorities could easily move any captives before her arrival, Rehn explained that her mission was an emotional one because she felt deep sorrow for the women.

"I am really trying to help those women, so they can have as honest answers as possible," Rehn said. "Sometimes you have to make very unrational decisions if you want to help someone."

She received a promise from local officials that the women would be allowed to travel to Srebrenica to conduct their own search.

Sunday evening, she met with the women in Tuzla to report what she had learned.

Fatima Huseinovic, the leader of the women, said after talking with Rehn that the news of her efforts on their behalf had provided "comfort and bigger hope" to the women.

Although initially saddened to learn that the Serbs had said there are no Muslim men alive in Srebrenica, the women did not abandon hope.

"It was hard, but at the same moment I thought they must be somewhere else," Huseinovic added.

Without Rehn's intervention, gaining access to Srebrenica might have been impossible for the women. The area has been off limits to Muslims since July.

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