UN Convoy Relieves Siege on Bosnia Town

Srebrenica is one of only two pockets of Muslim Slav resistance left along the border with Serbia

THE majestic hills enfolding this backwater town have become the walls of a giant prison, its inmates tens of thousands of Muslim Slavs who have been bombed and starved for almost eight months by encircling Serbian forces.

The plight of Srebrenica became known only Saturday when a United Nations convoy succeeded in delivering the first humanitarian aid since the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina erupted in late March. The growl of the Ukrainian UN armored escorts released a wave of pent-up emotions as thousands of people poured onto roadsides to greet the 18 supply trucks grinding past hundreds of homes destroyed by Serbian shellfire or pitted by shrapnel.

Haggard men and women wept or laughed as combat-hardened militiamen unleashed celebratory gunfire. Children jostled for rations tossed from the trucks by Belgian Army drivers.

"It is a very emotional experience. Tears came to my eyes for the first time in years," said Laurens Jolles, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convoy leader, as workers began unloading 137 tons of food and clothing.

"You are the first people we have seen in eight months," exclaimed Hassan Dzenanovic, a soldier who was one of the first people to meet the convoy after it crossed a 600-yard "no-man's land" of shell-torn homes from the Serb-held town of Bratunac.

"There is no electricity, no water, and no food. People are beginning to die of hunger. But we will fight and we will not surrender," Mr. Dzenanovic says.

Srebrenica is one of only two pockets of Muslim Slav resistance left in the Drina River region, the boundary between eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, and the first target of the Serbian conquest that sparked the war.

As other communities of what was an overwhelmingly Muslim Slav region fell to the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" drive, tens of thousands of refugees fled to Srebrenica or further south to the Muslim holdout city of Gorazde. The influx brought more defenders, but it also multiplied the hardships, as the area's population of 37,000 swelled by about 20,000.

Conditions grew abysmal as Serbian forces laid siege, cutting off the town and pounding it daily with artillery and air attacks that devastated homes, factories, and shops, and have left about 670 people dead.

"We have an abnormal number of people who are at the absolute limit of their existence," says Hamet Salihovic, a local military official. "There is not a single corridor out. We are totally isolated." The town's only link to the outside was by ham radio.

Two UNHCR attempts to reach Srebrenica this fall were foiled by blockades of Serbian women and children enraged that food was being taken to their enemies. Four days of similar tactics last week almost thwarted the latest operation.

But the protests suddenly were called off by local Serbian authorities under pressure from their leader, Radovan Karadzic, who risked a major loss of face after guaranteeing access to UNHCR. UNHCR had suspended aid to Serbian communities in the region Nov. 17, pending the outcome of the Srebrenica operation.

With countless windows and roofs blown out, many people in Srebrenica now fear that the encroaching Balkan winter will prove a more ruthless enemy than the surrounding Serbs.

In their battle for survival, people have cut down trees throughout the town, stacking huge piles of firewood in front yards and on balconies. For months, the main diet has consisted of oats and corn scavenged from outlying fields in life-risking nighttime forays.

"People who go looking for food have died," says Zorjat Memic. "We go out in the field during the night. Sometimes the Serbs are waiting to trap you and sometimes you step on mines."

As the trucks were being unloaded, doctors were shocked to learn that the convoy, through an unexplained oversight, brought no medicines.

"It is a disaster," says physician Dzevad Begic. "It [medicine] was more necessary than the food. Seventy percent of the people we could have saved if we had medicines."

The town's defenders have only light weapons, most of which they say were seized during forays into nearby Serbian areas, whose residents accuse the Muslim Slavs of committing atrocities against Serbian civilians.

"This is a guerrilla war. It is a war without rules. They force us to fight in that way," says Nasir Oric, a former paramilitary police officer who ironically had served as a bodyguard to President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, the main patron of the Serbian land grab in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Mr. Oric, sporting a medallion around his neck embossed with "Allah is great", vehemently denies Serbian charges that the Muslim Slavs of Bosnia are fighting a holy war for an Islamic fundamentalist state. "The Serbian side is pushing us into a religious war, but we flee from that," he says. "I am for all nationalities. We are for a civil state."

Indeed, one of the few untouched buildings in Srebrenica is the Serbian Orthodox Church. By contrast, the mosque in Serb-held Bratunac has been demolished with explosives.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.