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12,000 Muslims Massacred In July Srebrenica Exodus

By Michael Dobbs and Christine Spolar
The Washington Post

As Bosnian Serb forces closed in on the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica in early July, some 12,000 draft-age Muslim men gathered on a hill outside the town. Terrified of being killed by the advancing Serbs, they decided to gamble their lives on an arduous 60-mile trek through enemy-held territory to reach the Muslim stronghold of Tuzla.

The men set off at dawn on Tuesday, July 11, in two columns that stretched back seven or eight miles. Most were unarmed, although large groups at the beginning and end of the procession had weapons. As they trekked along wooded mountain streams, they could see NATO warplanes destroy a single Serb tank in a futile, last-ditch attempt to prevent the fall of the "safe area" in eastern Bosnia.

Of the 12,000 men who set out that day, significantly less than half ever made it to safety, according to information collected by international human-rights organizations and Bosnian officials. Nearly all of the remainder were butchered by troops under the command of Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander, despite repeated promises he gave the refugees that he would personally ensure their safety. For the rest of that week, a large area of eastern Bosnia was turned into a brutal killing field.

The accounts now available indicate that the massacres in the Srebrenica area during the week of July 11 were the worst atrocities committed in Europe since World War II.

"Being there, and seeing so many people executed was terrible," said Hurem Suljic, a 55-year-old Muslim who survived a massacre near the town of Karakaj by staying motionless beneath a pile of dead bodies. "Anybody who moved or screamed was killed. I was afraid someone could be alive on my back, and if he moved, they would shoot us again. Fortunately, they were all dead."

Although reports of mass killings began to circulate soon after the fall of Srebrenica, the full horror of what took place became apparent only much later as survivors of the long march told their stories to journalists, diplomats and human-rights activists. A detailed reconstruction of events by The Washington Post now suggests that there were at least five or six separate massacre sites, where large numbers of Muslim men were buried in mass graves, as well as dozens of other places where individual killings took place.

In hindsight, Srebrenica marked a decisive turning point in the brutal 3-year war between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian government. The fall of Srebrenica helped shame Western governments, including the United States, into finally drawing the line against Serb aggression and approving a strategy of massive airstrikes to protect the remaining "safe areas."

Nevertheless, mass abuses by the Bosnian Serbs have continued since Srebrenica, according to U.S. and U.N. officials. About 2,000 Muslim men are missing since Bosnian Serbs began expelling Muslims from the town of Banja Luka in northwestern Bosnia early this month. There have been conflicting reports about whether they have been killed or are held in prison camps.

A town of about 12,000 that swelled to three times that number with refugees, Srebrenica is nestled in wooded hills close to Bosnia's Drina river border with Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia. It first came to international attention in early 1993 when, surrounded by territory that had already fallen to the Serbs, the largely Muslim-inhabited enclave was on the verge of starvation.

In a gesture that made headlines around the world, the U.N. commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Philippe Morillon, forced his way into Srebrenica and promised to "protect" the population.

Earlier this summer, Bosnian Serb commanders decided to consolidate their control of eastern Bosnia, eliminating the government enclaves. On July 6, the Bosnian Serb army mounted a full-scale assault on the enclave with tanks and artillery, and Srebrenica fell five days later.

Thousands of men were rounded up by Serb forces as they attempted to cross the main roads at Kravica and Nova Kasaba. Some were tricked into surrendering by Serb soldiers driving captured U.N. vehicles in their distinctive white colors and masquerading as U.N. troops.

According to survivors, mass killings of captured Muslims took place in both Kravica and Nova Kasaba. The best-documented incidents occurred in the Nova Kasaba area. On July 12 and 13, U.S. satellites and spy planes took photographs of hundreds of people in a soccer stadium, later identified by eyewitnesses as one of several Serb detention camps. Several days later, American aerial reconnaissance recorded an empty stadium, together with four large patches of freshly dug earth in nearby fields and new truck tracks.