TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — EDITOR’S NOTE: More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys perished in 10 days of slaughter after Srebrenica was overrun by Bosnian Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic on July 11, 1995. It is the only episode of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war to be defined as genocide by two U.N. courts.
On Wednesday, judges at a U.N. court will issue verdicts in Mladic’s long-running trial for allegedly masterminding atrocities during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war that include his role in Srebrenica massacre.
It took a while before the extent of slaughter in this town and its surroundings became clear. These three survivors gave an AP reporter one of the first detailed descriptions of what happened at one of the killing sites.
Serb captors had promised a prisoner exchange. But Hurem Suljic says that as he clambered off a truck with other Muslim captives, he saw only a green hillside covered with bodies.
In the next hours, first under the July sun and then, at night, by the headlights of two backhoes, as many as 3,000 Muslim men captured when Serbs overran the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica were mowed down, Suljic says.
He said those who didn’t die immediately were killed by a pistol shot to the head.
Only three men are known to have survived, one of them Suljic, a 54-year-old disabled bricklayer. The others are Mevludin Oric and Smail Hodzic. Their accounts of the massacre coincide on many points, and Suljic puts the Bosnian Serb military commander, Lt. Gen. Ratko Mladic, at the scene.
The three survivors have spoken to government investigators gathering information to present to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, which earlier indicted Mladic as a suspected war criminal.
The International Red Cross has said 8,000 of the 42,000 people in Srebrenica before its fall to Serbs remain unaccounted for.
U.S. spy photos have indicated mass graves around Nova Kasaba, west of Srebrenica. Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the Security Council as many as 2,700 people might be buried there.
The Serbs deny mass executions, suggesting the remains are those of some of 3,000 Bosnian government soldiers killed defending Srebrenica. The Serbs have rejected U.N. demands for access to the area, though journalists who have slipped in have reported evidence of human remains.
The story told by the three survivors, who were interviewed separately, is one of the deliberate murder of prisoners, not the death of Bosnian soldiers in combat.
Here is the story the three men tell:
As Srebrenica fell after three years of siege, residents had two choices: hope U.N. soldiers could protect them, or try to escape west through Serb-held forests to government territory.
Suljic figured the Serbs would have no use for a bricklayer with a bum leg, and joined thousands of others — mostly women and children — seeking refuge at the main U.N. base. But Serbs occupied the base and, while Dutch peacekeepers watched helplessly, separated several hundred men and shut them up in a nearby warehouse. Suljic was among them.
Suljic said some 100 were taken away the first day, supposedly for questioning. While on a visit to the bathroom, he believes he glimpsed one of them being beaten by Serb soldiers with an iron bar and an axe in a room with a blood-covered floor.
The next day Mladic visited the warehouse and told the group they would be exchanged for Serb prisoners of war. But instead of heading to the front line, they were taken to a sweltering sports hall in Krizevci, about 22 miles north of Srebrenica.
Through the night, bus after bus arrived. On one was 25-year-old Oric, a soldier captured by Serbs as he fled through the woods. Oric said the Serbs sometimes drove U.N. vehicles, or wore blue U.N. flak jackets confiscated from peacekeepers.
Suljic, using his bricklayer’s skills, estimated the area of the sports hall was roughly 600 square yards. He said he counted four to five men a square yard, for a total of 2,400-3,000.
The men rested on each other. Those who couldn’t sit, stood. Mladic appeared again on July 14, three days after the fall of Srebrenica.
Suljic recalled that the general, accompanied by aides, greeted the prisoners by saying, “Hello, neighbors.”
“We started yelling at him, ‘Why are you suffocating us here? Better kill us all,'” Suljic said. Finally, the prisoner exchange was said to be ready.
Men were given water for the first time since arriving in Krizevci. Then, they were placed in two small trucks, 10-15 men a truck. Suljic, thinking his ordeal was ending, was among the first.
Suljic and Oric both noted that as the open-back trucks left, they were followed by a red car. In the passenger seat was a man aiming an automatic rifle at the prisoners.
“We went a bit up the hill, slowly,” Suljic recalled. “The sound of some machines was becoming louder and louder. We were obviously approaching them. The truck turned left and stopped in the grass. We saw a field covered with bodies.”
“They ordered us to come out and line up with our backs to the soldiers, and our faces to the field of bodies.”
There were two firing squads of five soldiers each, armed with automatic rifles. Suljic was in the first row looking at the bodies, with two rows of prisoners between him and Serb guns.
“I could hear automatic gunfire. They fell on me, and I fell on my stomach. But I wasn’t hit,” he said.
Oric was with a cousin, who grabbed his hand as they got into a truck at about 2:30 p.m., shortly after Suljic.
When they saw the killing field, “my cousin grabbed my hand again and said, ‘Mevlo, they’re going to kill us,’ ” Oric recalled. “But there was still some kind of hope in me that they wouldn’t kill us just because we were Muslims.”
As the shooting started, “my cousin squeezed my hand and groaned. I threw myself on the ground right away. I didn’t move. I stayed lying there for nine hours.”
In intervals between the shooting, a Serb soldier walked among the bodies and finished off those still moving with a pistol shot to the head, Oric and Suljic said.
Oric said whenever anyone showed signs of life, he was killed.
At one point, he heard an old man plead: “Please don’t do this to us, children. We haven’t done anything to you.” He, too, was killed.
Suljic said a backhoe was digging a hole about 30 feet away. At one point, he said, Mladic appeared about 15 yards away. “He took a look and left quickly.”
Group by group, trucks brought prisoners, who were gunned down in turn. When it became too dark to see, the soldiers used the headlights of two backhoes, Suljic said.
Finally the shooting stopped, and Oric heard a voice saying the dead would not be buried that night. But guards refused to spend the night, and all the Serbs eventually left.
Suljic stood and looked around the quiet countryside under a blanket of stars. Moonlight illuminated “a sea of bodies.”
He tried to shout “Is there anybody alive? If there is someone, get up, and let’s go.” It came out as a whisper.
But it was loud enough for Oric, lying about 20 yards away.
As he stood, Oric said, “The only thing I saw was dead people all over the place, one on top of the other. I got very scared and started crying. I couldn’t stop. This man came to me, it was Hurem, and he asked if I was wounded.”
Stepping over bodies, the two headed into the forest. In the morning, they reached a burned-out village. Stopping to pick apples, they saw a man ahead. It was Hodzic, the third known survivor.
Suljic said the three climbed a hill, oriented themselves, and began walking toward government positions. Three days later, they crossed a mine field at the front line and were met by Bosnian soldiers.
Suljic now lives in government-held Tuzla, 45 miles northwest of Srebrenica. Nearby lives Sefika Secic, 17 years old and pregnant.
Secic survived the fall of Srebrenica by fleeing through the woods. She last saw her husband, Sahbaz Muharemovic, standing stripped to the waist with hundreds of other men under Serb guard at Kravice, about nine miles west of Srebrenica.
Every day Secic searches lists of Srebrenica survivors, hoping to find his name.
Suljic knows that his group included men from Kravice. But he hasn’t told the young woman because he can’t be certain Muharemovic is dead.
“But if she adds two and two,” he said, “she will realize there is no need for her to look at the lists too often.”