Death Of A Village

ZINA HASANOVIC TAKES OUT her most treasured possession, a picture of her husband, Haris. She smiles down at her year-old daughter, Lejla. "See, it's Papa. Give him a kiss," she says. The toddler grabs the photograph, kisses it and proudly says, "Papa." Her grandmother weeps in the corner of their one-room home, which is shared by eight refugees from the Muslim village of Lehovici, outside Srebrenica. The women are teaching Lejla to say "Father" and "Uncle" and "Brother," despite the fact that most of her male relatives are almost certainly dead.

They disappeared last July, when Bosnian Serb forces overran the Srebrenica enclave, which the United Nations had proclaimed a "safe haven." The Serbs drove out the women and butchered the men, according to numerous eyewitness accounts, burying most of the bodies in mass graves. Officially, as many as 8,000 men from Srebrenica are still listed as missing. Zina Hasanovic is one of the few women to know exactly what happened to her husband. Haris was executed on a killing field in the village of Grbavci. As Serb bullets swept the tightly packed ranks of Muslim prisoners, Haris fell on top of Mevludin Oric, his first cousin and best friend. Mevludin lay there for hours, covered by bodies and blood, while the Serbs finished off the wounded. Then he escaped to tell Zina what had happened.

Now spring is coming, and the thawing earth begins to give up its dead. Last week six forensic investigators from the U.N. warcrimes tribunal probed the mud of Grbavci, shielded from Serb interference by U.S. troops. Proving that death was caused by murder, not by battle, is a delicate task (page 55), made more complicated in this case by recent tampering with the mass grave. Even so, the investigators quickly found traces of a vast atrocity; the field was still littered with human bones, empty ammo boxes and blood-soaked blindfolds.

So far, the tribunal has indicted 46 Serbs for war crimes, including Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb president, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the military commander. Only two of the suspects are in custody. Mladic says he will never give up and claims his army "waged war in accordance with all international norms." Now, through the U.N. investigators, the dead of Grbavci are giving evidence. And the few Muslim survivors have important stories to tell. Mevludin Oric, a 25-year-old factory worker, is one of two survivors interviewed by NEWSWEEK who can place Mladic at the scene of the crime--giving orders and watching executions.

The village of Lehovici has its own story to tell, a microcosm of the terrible suffering and loss inflicted by the Serbs. The village, six miles from Srebrenica, was so isolated that all of its residents were related to one another; Hasanovic was the most common family name. Today, Lehovici lies uninhabited in Serb-held territory. Of its 126 residents, 33 are listed as missing--31 men, a boy and a woman. The rest, mostly women and children, are scattered in refugee camps all over northern Bosnia. During the past two months, a NEWSWEEK photographer and I visited Lehovici twice, hiking in on foot after bluffing our way past two Serb checkpoints. We tracked down all of the refugees and brought them together for a reunion in Tuzla, where U.S. forces are headquartered. They wanted to see pictures of their village and ask for information about their missing menfolk. The news was mostly all bad.

It was eerily quiet the first time we visited Lehovici. All 25 of the houses had been destroyed-most by fire, some by dynamite. Recent footprints apparently belonged to looters and scavengers, Serbs who even nine months later found things to take: the electric wiring, bits of metal kitchenware, cattle feed from old corncribs. The only living thing in the village was a tan mongrel dog, who fearfully skirted our path near the home of Redzep Hasanovic (chart). On a subsequent visit, we saw Serbs taking building materials away on packhorses.

On the day Srebrenica fell, last July 11, all the men of the enclave, combatants and noncombatants alike, gathered at a village near Lehovici. There were about 15,000 of them, and they planned to flee northwest through the mountains. The women, children and those too old or infirm to hike the mountains were told to go the other way, down the valley to a U.N. base manned by Dutch peacekeeping troops at Potocari, three miles away.

The women from Lehovici were lucky at Potocari. They were among the first to be bused out to Bosnian-government territory, and none of them were pulled off the buses and raped, as happened to other evacuees in the following days. Then, as thousands of terrified refugees milled at a factory in Potocari, the Dutch troops surrendered to the Serbs, and the Serbs began culling the Muslims.

On the first day, July 12, they took only the old men; later they began taking boys as young as 12. None of the men arrested at Potocari have been seen again, with the lone exception of Hurem Suljic. Like Mevludin Oric, he escaped by surviving his own execution. Some of the other men were tortured and murdered in buildings near the factory, according to the warcrimes tribunal. Others were taken to killing fields farther away; some were forced by the Serbs to dig their own graves and then were buried alive in them.

With the other men of the Srebrenica enclave, Mevludin set off on what survivors call "The Road of Death." It was a trail through the mountains that during the war years had been used to infiltrate supplies from Tuzla. He knew the way well, because he had made the trip four times before. The progress of the column was painfully slow, and it took two days to reach a narrow, open valley near Kamenica. There, in broad daylight, the refugees fell into the first of many Serb ambushes. Tanks and artillery pounded the area from the road below; Serb troops on high ground fired into the column. Thousands had come this way ahead of Mevludirn's party, and the ground was littered with bodies already. A Muslim commander ordered all the civilians to lie down, and with a few armed men tried to cover them. It was hopeless. Shells pounded the column every few seconds.

Most of the men who survived the Road of Death were soldiers, who led the march out. Civilians were less fortunate. Haso Hasanovic, 16 at the time, was captured at Kamenica and taken with other Muslim prisoners to the warehouse there. Sent to fetch water for the adult prisoners, he saw a 13-year-old girl with her throat slit, among other bodies near the spring. A Serb with a Mohawk haircut and a long knife was leaving the scene. At other points along the road, Serbs with loud speakers--sometimes wearing uniforms taken from the Dutch peacekeepers--called Muslims to come down from the hills and surrender. Exhausted and often starving, many did. Some killed themselves instead; others simply went mad.

YOUNG HASO ESCAPED THE FIRST time he was captured. He was caught again at Bunica on the Road of Death. He was taken to a large field called Konjevic Polje with 500 Muslim men, all of them with their hands tied behind their backs. The field was already full of bodies, and the 500 were told to lie down on top of them. The Serbs laughingly told them they would be executed, too, but instead shot over their heads. Then a Serb officer arrived and ordered his men to separate out the children; Haso was one of four who were spared and later released. None of the other prisoners were seen again.

Those who survived the first big ambushes at Kamenica still had to get across a heavily patrolled Serb highway, the Vlasenica-Zvornik Road. Mevludin and his cousin Haris Hasanovic waited two days for a chance, but were caught as they descended in the dark. "Don't worry," their captors told them. "We'll exchange you for Serb prisoners." They were taken to Grbavci, where as many as 3,000 Muslims were jammed into the school gymnasium. On July 14, trucks arrived every few minutes, each taking a load of the Muslims away, blindfolded--to be exchanged, said the Serbs. At one point, not yet blindfolded, Mevludin Oric saw the Serb's military commander, Ratko Mladic, outside the gymnasium door, issuing orders to the officers.

The men from Lehovici stayed together and were on the same truck. They were driven to a field across a railroad track, only ,a mile away, lined up with their backs to their captors in two rows of 10 or so. Haris and Mevludin were next to each other. They held hands. "They're going to kill us," Haris said. Mevludin replied: "No, they wouldn't do that." Then the Serbs opened fire, and Haris fell on top of his cousin. For a full minute he convulsed, and then he died. Mevludin lay under him for hours. "He was as heavy as a house," he recalls.

Every few minutes, another truckload arrived at the field. "I still couldn't believe they would kill us. Who could do something like this?" Mevludin says. "They were laughing like crazy men-they must have been on drugs, that's all I can think. If a wounded man asked to be killed because of the pain, they would say, "Take it easy, old man, you'll be dead soon.' And they said things like, 'Damn Muslims, the only good Muslim is a dead Muslin'."

LATER IN THAT LONG DAY, AS THE field piled high with bodies and the drainage ditch at the foot of it flowed with blood, one of the victims jumped up and tried to run.

His wounds prevented him from getting far before the Serbs finished him off. Mevludin heard an officer shout at the executioners that they were doing a lousy job--"he told them to go shoot each one in the head. Look, there's one twitching, go shoot it." As the pistol shots popped in rapid sequence, Mevludin passed out from terror. He woke up alive. His cousin's body covered him, and perhaps the killers mistook Haris's profuse blood for his own. Or perhaps they just grew weary of shooting dead bodies.

Later that night Mevludin heard the killers leave. He got up and crawled off the field. Amazingly, he found another survivor: Suljic, 56, a carpenter from another town who had been crippled before the war and could walk only short distances. As a handicapped person, Suljic had gone to the Potocari factory under U.N. guard with the women and children of Srebrenica. But he had been selected out for execution anyway. When the Serbs started shooting, he fell, unhurt, and played possum. From where Suljic lay on the field in Grbavci, with his blindfold partly off, he could see General Mladic arrive with one of the truckloads of victims. He says Mladic stood only 10 yards away from him, watching as the prisoners were shot in the back. Suljic stole a glance at his watch, and it was 8:15 p.m. on the 14th of July.

When Suljic met Mevludin, he told him: "I have a handicap. Leave me." Mevludin refused. For the next seven days they helped each other to safety through Serb territory. Suljic gathered white mushrooms for them to eat. Mevludin helped the older man hobble up the hills and waited while he rested. Suljic still had a tube of toothpaste in his pocket; when there was no water, they sucked on it to moisten their mouths.

Mevludin was one of 11 Lehovici men to reach safety in government-held territory. Only two of 21 family heads made it. Mevludin had to tell the families about the fate of the other men. Zina believes his story. So does young Haso, whose father, Edhem, died on the same field in Grbavci. But to this day, Haso's mother, Sahha, clings to the hope that her husband may have survived. She points out that Mevludin didn't actually see him die; he was in another part of the field. "Mevludin told us he was at the killing place," said Saliha, "but we don't really know what happened after that. We have no other news. It could be. . . " Her voice trails off. Listening to her, Mevludin hangs his head, blushes deeply and doesn't argue.

THE FATE OF LEHOVICI'S 126 inhabitants closely parallels the fate of the 39,000 people still in the Srebrenica enclave when it fell to the Serbs. Only a few victims were confirmed killed by eyewitnesses: three in Lehovici, several hundred in the enclave as a whole. Many more are simply missing, presumed dead. A quarter of Lehovici's residents perished, and five out of every six men. The International Committee of the Red Cross thinks as many as 8,000 people from Srebrenica may have died, including all 3,000 whom it had registered as taken prisoner. The Bosnian government's estimate of 11,000 dead from the enclave is closer to the death rate for Lehovici.

Last November eight men from the Srebrenica region turned up after 130 days on the run, living off apples. They were the last to escape. The ensuing winter was particularly hard, the apples and mushrooms long gone, and it's doubtful anyone else could have survived. But the women of Srebrenica keep hearing rumors about places where Muslim prisoners are said to be held by the Serbs. The Red Cross, the United Nations, human-rights activists and journalists have visited all of the sites, and so far, no missing Muslims have been found alive.

Not long after the fall of Srebrenica, two men from Lehovici were spotted in Kravica, a village near the site of the first ambush. One of them was Sefik Hasanovic, who was seen by a relative as he was taken to a warehouse with other men who had surrendered. When I visited Kravica, I found the warehouse riddled with bullet holes. In a nearby field, there were scores of skeletons dressed in rags, many of them beheaded. No one had bothered to bury the dead, and Serb farmers drove their tractors over corpses lying in their way. Sefik's mother, Ramiza, still doesn't know for sure what happened to him or to her missing husband, Sevko.

Today many Lehovici villagers are living in the Tuzla area, but most were widely scattered in refugee camps and lost touch with their old neighbors until the reunion organized by NEWSWEEK. The joy of seeing each other after nine months was muted by anguish. The villagers kept looking around the room, bursting into tears at the tangible evidence of how few men remained. "There is no Lehovici without the men," said Mevlida Hasanovic, whose husband and two sons are among the missing. Her daughter-in-law, Zulfiya, bounced her year old son on her lap; the toddler was dressed in combat fatigues and a colorful scarf. "All we women can do is try to comfort one another and live for the children," Zulfiya said. "But can you understand? I lost my husband, my brother, my father. So my son .has no father, no uncle, no grandfather."

The villagers gathered in small groups to watch a video we had made of their destroyed hometown. They all wanted to see the evidence with their own eyes, and despite the anticipated devastation, they wanted another, nostalgic glimpse of Lehovici. The children were delighted to recognize the spring, the streams, the pastures they had played in. Their parents burst into tears at the sight of their ruined homes, even though they expected as much, but they gasped with relief at the one piece of news the video brought them: "Look," said one villager, "the cemetery hasn't been destroyed." Headstones dating from Ottoman times were still intact, and the refugees could discern the more recent graves of loved ones.

The kids especially were delighted to recognize the tan mongrel we saw on our first visit. One shouted: "That's Redzep's dog!" Redzep Hasanovic, one of the missing villagers, was the tallest man in Lehovici by a whole head; beside his now burned-down house was a basketball hoop on a grass court. His teenage children are all taller than 6 feet already, even 16-year-old daughter Ermina. "Let us go back there," said his wife, Sadeta. "To look for them, or at least for their bodies." Zina Hasanovic, whose husband's body shielded Mevludin, had no hope of finding her spouse alive, but still she wanted to go back to the Srebrenica enclave. "Now I want to be able at least to see the mass grave," she said. "To know where he is. And to show Lejla so that she'll know where her father is." Even that minimal act of closure is still denied to the villagers. They may not get any peace of mind until the ground finishes giving up its dead and the world finds a way to punish the murderers.

Up to 8,000 Muslims, mostly men, were killed last July after the Srebrenica enclave fell. Nearby Lehovici (population: 126) was one of the towns ravaged; every house and family was torn apart.

Family of Dasan Oric, six members. Dasan is missing. Son Harudin, 19, escaped to Germany.

Family of Sejdalija Oric, five members. Sejdalija is now missing.

Family of Azem Dautovic, seven members. Azem is missing. Wife, mother, four kids survived.

Family of Becar Hodzic, four members. Becar was killed as a soldier in 1993. Wife and three children survived.

Family of Sejfan Hodzic, six members. Sejfan's father, Salko, was taken prisoner and is now missing.

Family of Salcin Hodzic, six members. His grandson saw Salcin killed in an ambush. Son Sefik, 43, is missing.

Family of Becir Hodzic, nine members. Becir, 55, last seen at Kamenica.

Family of Arif Hasanovic, nine members. Arif is missing. Son Haris executed near Grbavci.

Family of Semso Hasanovic, five members. Semso is missing.

Family of Mevludin Oric, seven members. Mevludin survived at Grbavci. His father is missing.

Family of Ibrahim Hodzic, six members. Ibrahim, two sons and never returned.

Family of, Edhem Hasanovic, seven members. Edhem was executed.

Family of Ismet Hasanovic, five members. Ismet and son Jusuf, 20, are missing.

Family of Nusret Hasanovic, seven members. Nusret and his son, Nijaz, 15, are missing. Brother Osman is also presumed dead.

Family of Redzep Hasanovic, nine members. Redzep missing since he was separated from his son at Kravica.

Family of Abdullah Hasanovic, seven members. Abdullah killed by land mine. Son is missing.

Family of Sevko Hasanovic, three members. Sevko and son Sefik last seen near Kamenica.

Family of Memsur Selimovic. Brother-in-law Hazim Harbas is missing.

Family of Hassan Hasanovic, six members. Son Hazim fled through forest, not seen since.

Family of Nurif Hasanovic, six members. Nurif, with sons Nuriz and Sabahudin, are missing.

The Serb advances last July set off an exodus of 15,000 Muslims, through what survivors now call "The Road of Death"

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