FIVE months after their troops defied the world and blasted their way into Srebrenica, thousands of Serb refugees have resettled in what was once a UN-declared "safe area" for Muslims.
One food store, a post office, and the Calypso Cafe, where local Serb police find shelter from the cold, appear to be the only working businesses in the wreckage of this town. All of the factories and mosques have been blown up, mounds of rotting garbage and hulks of rusting cars litter the sidewalks, and the icy air echoes with chain saws and axes hewing firewood for heating and cooking.
Four American journalists, including this reporter, on Tuesday paid the first unhampered visit by Western reporters to Srebrenica since Bosnian Serb forces last July stormed the former safe area as the international community stood by and watched.
Under the command of the Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic, Bosnian Serb forces expelled some 40,000 Muslims they had besieged and bombarded for more than three years. Another 3,500 to 5,500 Muslims, according to a UN report, are missing. They are believed to have been massacred while escaping and buried in up to six mass graves in the surrounding region.
The area is part of the operational area of the 20,000-member US contingent of the NATO Implementation Force, which is policing the US-brokered Bosnia peace settlement. The UN War Crimes Tribunal tomorrow intends to ask IFOR troops to secure the grave sites until spring, when they plan to exhume the sites.
Bosnian Serb leaders have denied the allegations of massacres. But Milan Markovic, a Serb native of Srebrenica who helped Serb forces overrun the town in July, acknowledges otherwise.
"Look at those hills. They used to be covered with trees, but the Muslims cut them down," he says, pointing to surrounding slopes denuded of firewood during three winters of siege. "They ruined this town. It used to be pretty. So, we killed them, we killed them all."
The town resembles an urban wasteland. Every house and building has been scarred by shrapnel. Dogs nose through the rubble. Refugees have made the less damaged homes habitable with plastic sheeting and materials taken from unsalvageable residences. They obtain electricity by jerry-rigging wires to street lights that turn on only once every few days. Running water is also intermittent.
"It's bad here. There's worse. But it's really bad," says Simo, a grizzled refugee from the central Muslim-controlled town of Bugojno. "I have no job and no chance of getting one."
Many refugees are from Shipovo and Mrkonjic Grad, towns in northwest Bosnia that fell in October to a Bosnian Croat assault that helped turn the tide of the war against the Bosnian Serbs.
Simo says that Serb officials in Shipovo and Mrkonjic Grad directed residents to go to Srebrenica, the site of a famous medieval silver mine. He says he has seen no international humanitarian aid since he arrived here some two months ago.
No one knows how many refugees have resettled in the town. But it is obvious the number has begun growing with the arrivals of Serbs from Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo that are due to revert to federation control in mid-March. Trucks and cars filled with household goods and bearing license plates from "Serb Sarajevo" sit along sidewalks or grind along Srebrenica's ash-blackened streets.
"I came from Vogosca today," one man says, referring to a northern suburb of Sarajevo. "I can't stay there. We have no security from the Muslims. I had no other place to go but here."
* For more on the Monitor's coverage of Bosnia, check out the Internet Web site at: http://freerange.com/csmonitor