Survivors tell of atrocities by Serb army

Stephen Engelberg and Tim Weiner
Raymond Bonner in Bosnia and Jane Perlez in Serbia contributed to this story.

Sun, Oct. 29, 1995

WASHINGTON - On the afternoon of July 10, soldiers of the Bosnian Serbian Army began storming Srebrenica, a city of refuge created by the United Nations, where more than 40,000 people sought shelter from war. A U.N. officer in the town hunched over his computer and tapped out a desperate plea to his leaders in Geneva:

"Urgent urgent urgent. BSA is entering the town of Srebrenica. Will someone stop this immediately and save these people. Thousands of them are gathering around the hospital. Please help."

Nobody did. The eastern Bosnian city was overrun, and what followed in the towns and fields around Srebrenica is described by Western officials and human rights groups as the worst war crime in Europe since World War II: the killing of perhaps 6,000 people.

As recounted by the few Muslims who survived, the killing was chillingly methodical, part mass slaughter, part blood sport.

The Muslim men were herded by the thousands into trucks, delivered to killing sites near the Drina River, lined up four by four, and shot.

One survivor, 17-year-old Nezad Avdic, recalled last week that as he lay wounded among the dead Muslims, a Serbian soldier surveyed the stony, moonlit field piled with bodies and merrily declared: "That was a good hunt. There were a lot of rabbits here."

Serbian civilians interviewed last week in the villages around Srebrenica confirmed for the first time the mass killings carried out in their midst.

They pointed out the schools that were used as holding pens for the doomed Muslims. They reported seeing bodies all along the roads and fields outside Srebrenica.

A reconstruction of the fall of Srebrenica and the ensuing massacres, based on survivors' accounts, NATO and U.N. documents and interviews in Bosnia, Serbia, Washington and New York, leaves little doubt about what happened.

The question of Serbian accountability promises to haunt the Bosnian peace talks set to begin Wednesday at an Air Force base in Ohio.

The role of the outsiders who were sworn to protect the town but did not - the United Nations, NATO and the United States - is not so stark.

But the massacre of thousands of men ostensibly under international protection is regarded by many officials as the low point of Western policy in the Balkans.

Before the Serbian conquest of Srebrenica, some calls for help were ignored, some rejected.

Gen. Bernard Janvier, the U.N. commander for Bosnia, vetoed air strikes that Dutch peacekeepers in Srebrenica requested to defend the town.

U.N. officers said he had little enthusiasm for protecting an enclave viewed as an indefensible impediment to ending the war.

After the town was overrun, Dutch soldiers failed to relay crucial information, including a threat by the Bosnian Serbian commander, Gen. Ratko Mladic, to massacre the Muslims.

U.S. officials say they had no warning the town would fall and no way to save its people.

A U.S. spy satellite photographed hundreds of Muslim men held in fields at gunpoint on July 13 - evidence of a crime in progress.

But those riveting photos, and shots taken by a U-2 spy plane two weeks later of freshly turned earth in the same fields, were first shown to President Clinton's top advisors Aug. 4, long after the victims were dead and buried.

The deaths of thousands gave life to a moribund diplomacy. The testimony of despairing refugees from the enclave caught Clinton's attention.

Pushed by the United States, NATO adopted a more aggressive military stance and staged the most punishing air strikes of the war. A new U.S. peace plan became the basis for a cease-fire and the Ohio talks.

When Srebrenica fell, the Serbian commander, Mladic - who was about to be indicted by the international War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague on charges of ordering savage ethnic purges in other conquered towns - met with Col. Ton Karremans, the Dutch peacekeepers' commander, and set his terms "in the most threatening way," as the colonel later described it: no more air strikes, or the refugees would be shelled and shot.

To illustrate his plans, witnesses say, the general ordered one of his men to slit the throat of a pig and declared, "This is what we're going to do the Muslims."

As Mladic made his threats, 15,000 people - mostly the men, including the local soldiers - gathered on the outskirts of Srebrenica, not willing to trust their lives to the United Nations or the Serbs.

Safety lay a three-day trek away, through Serbian-held territory. The long march began about midnight.

The remaining refugees, as many as 25,000, jammed into the Dutch base camp in Potocari near Srebrenica, were seized with panic. Some of the women were abducted by Serbian soldiers and raped, witnesses have said.

On the night of the 11th, U.N. soldiers heard screams and gunshots. Later, they found the bodies of at least nine men, shot in the back of the head.

Mladic arrived at Potocari on the morning of Wednesday, July 12, with a convoy of 40 trucks and buses and a video crew. His soldiers ordered the refugees aboard, separating the men from the women. The peacekeepers stood by.

"No panic, please," the general said, smiling, handing a child a candy bar, in a video clip broadcast around the world. "Don't be afraid. No one will harm you."

Another tape shot the same day but never shared with the world's networks showed a more chilling scene. In it, a Serbian soldier shouts at the male refugees: "Come on, line up, one by one! Come on! Faster, faster! Go, go, go!"

One witness who recorded the fear of the town that day was Christina Schmidt, a German-born nurse who led the Srebrenica team from the French group Doctors Without Borders. She sent her account by radio to her organization's Belgrade office.

"Everybody should feel the violence in the faces of the BSA soldiers directing the people like animals to the buses," she wrote in her journal for July 12, referring to the Bosnian Serbian Army. "Everybody who could have stopped this mass exodus should be forced to feel the panic and desperation of the people.

"A father with his one-year-old baby is coming to me, crying, accompanied by BSA. He doesn't have anybody to take care of the baby and BSA selected him for. . . ? It's a horrible scene - I have to take the baby from his arm - writing down his name and feeling that he will never see his child again."

Hurem Suljic, an invalid 55-year-old carpenter, was taken to a partly finished house jammed with men the Serbs had pulled out of the lines.

Suljic was taken out at nightfall the next day. He was the last of the 25 or 30 men to board his truck.

The truck moved slowly along a dirt road. Suljic said he had pushed up his blindfold and had seen a field filled with bodies. Around the bend, more bodies. Then the truck stopped, the men ordered out.

They were put in rows four abreast. From behind, the Serbian soldiers began shooting. Men fell on top of Suljic, who escaped being hit.

As he lay on the grassy field under the bodies, trucks kept coming, each with 25 or 30 more men. The men were taken out, lined up and shot. Suljic said he had seen it all clearly under the full moon.

Mladic returned, stood by while a fresh truckload of men was shot, and left, Suljic said. More groups of men were brought and killed. Finally, Suljic said he heard some Serbs saying, "Everything is finished; nobody is left."