Peace deal news lured Muslims out of 9 months of hiding

 

DASAN ORIC, a Bosnian Muslim on the run from the Serb conquest of Srebrenica, hid in hostile territory for nine months before setting out to reach safety after hearing the Bosnia peace deal had been signed.

He was one of six Muslim men from Srebrenica, a former UN protected "safe area", who ended a harrowing odyssey by entering the Bosnian government city of Tuzla on Saturday.

Seated in an cottage near a lake in the village of Frkici, where his family was temporarily housed yesterday, he still could not believe his ordeal was over.

"When I reached the police, station in Kalesija (government side of ceasefire line east of Tuzla), I still couldn't believe I was in our free territory," said Mr Oric, 43 but looking exhausted and at least 20 years older.

His wife, Tija, said "I mourned him as dead a thousand times I held my hopes until the new year and then I was certain he was dead. When I saw him on the television yesterday I simply couldn't believe it.

Some 8,000 Srebrenica Muslim men remain missing after separatist Serb forces overran the eastern government enclave of some 40,000 people last July. Many are believed to have been murdered as prisoners or shot dead in rural ambushes by soldiers under Serb commander Gen Ratko Mladic, then bulldozed into mass graves.

Mr Oric said he saw many skeletons and human bones along the mountainous, heavily wooded way to Tuzla. "The largest number of bones was in Kamenica, near Bratunac, where the biggest ambush took place," he said.

After the capture of Srebrenica Bosnia's war raged on for another three months. In December the warring Muslems, Croats and Serbs signed the Dayton peace treaty.

"After nine months we decided to go to Tuzla. I knew of the Dayton peace deal because I listened to the radio I had with me. That was crucial in our decision to get going, Mr Oric said.

That was his second attempt to reach the sanctuary of the government stronghold some 80 km (50. miles) north west of Srebrenica.

"When Srebrenica fell we first headed towards Tuzla and were soon ambushed near Kamenica. We scattered around amidst shooting, many of us got killed. I saw at least a hundred men fall dead there," Mr Oric said.

He ran away but was soon captured by Serbs he mistook for his comrades. "They took me to a driver and were going to kill me when a group of our (escaping) soldiers came along and opened fire on them," he said.

In the ensuing skirmish he slipped away, found a large, hollow beech tree and "spent two days and two nights standing upright inside the tree".

After several attempts to sneak through Bosnian Serb lines failed, Mr Oric sneaked back to his native village, Lehovice, four km from Srebrenica, in mid August. Knowing the area well, he felt safe enough to spend the next eight months there.

Soon he was joined by another five Muslim escapees from Srebrenica. They all hid in an improvised earthen dugout.

"At night we would dig out potatoes from the fields. When those ran out we relied on what flour we had and corn we managed to harvest."

When Serb patrols started coming too close to their shelter, they moved to another dugout as the first snow of winter fell.

"There was no food, water or firewood. Those days were really terrible," he said. "The Serbs kept passing by so we could only get out at night.

"Those nine months seemed like nine years. But now I want to go back home and live on my land," he said.

That prospect seems unlikely for now as the Srebrenica region fell within the half of Bosnia allotted to Serb authorities under the Dayton accords and ethnic power brokers on both sides have blocked the return of refugees.

However Srebrenica refugees in the Tuzla region are deriving some satisfaction from the arrival of UN war crimes investigators to examine suspected mass graves.