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Serbs Who Turned Srebrenica into City Of Dead Try To Make It Live

March 2, 1996

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ To Rajko Brajic, a Bosnian Serb refugee, Srebrenica has an eerie feel.

``It stinks of death,″ he says. ``And it simply won’t go away.″

The Serbs killed thousands of Muslims in the U.N. ``safe area″ of Srebrenica last summer, and drove the rest away. The destroyed city and suspected mass graves in the area, believed to hold up to 7,000 Muslims, have become the symbol of the worst Muslim suffering of Bosnia’s war.

Now, thousands of Bosnian Serbs fleeing Sarajevo suburbs that are being turned over to the Muslim-Croat federation are settling into former Muslim homes in Srebrenica, trying to bring life back to this city of the dead.

But for some Serbs, the task is impossible. Bosnia’s worst killing field, scene of the most vitriolic of the war’s many hatreds, is haunted by ghosts they cannot ignore.

``We all know that thousands of Muslims were massacred here,″ Brajic, 47, said in a half-voice, looking around so no other Serb would hear him. ``But we don’t talk about it. It’s a taboo.″

Brajic sat in a small apartment in a four-story, drab socialist-style block.

``Most of us have a feeling of guilt as we move into places whose owners are probably dead,″ he said. ``But we had no choice _ either here, or out in the open.″

Srebrenica (pronounced SREB-re-nee-tsuh) had about 6,000 inhabitants before the Bosnian war broke out in 1992. By the time Serb rebels seized it last July, its population had swelled to more than 30,000.

It is an ancient town whose silver mines _ ``srebro″ in the local language means ``silver″ _ gave it its name. Chunks of ramparts from the Middle Ages still stand.

Today, the town’s life has a medieval quality once again.

Huge mountains of garbage _ dishes, furniture and everything else rampaging Serb soldiers tossed out of Muslim apartments last summer _ make the main street almost impassable.

Despite freezing temperatures, the stench of decomposing garbage is so overpowering that many people hold handkerchiefs over their mouths and noses. Stray dogs scavenge the dirt, looking for food. At night, huge rats take their place.

``This makes you close your eyes and bang your head against the wall,″ said Jovka Miric, a school teacher who fled the Sarajevo suburb of Ilijas with her two little girls. Her husband was killed in battle during the war.

``If someone doesn’t remove this garbage soon, we’ll all die of some epidemic,″ she said, sobbing.

The family now lives in the drab apartment block, where the heavy wallpaper is peeling off the walls.

``Whoever on earth wanted to capture this doomed city in the first place must have been crazy,″ she said.

She acknowledged the irony of the city’s destruction.

``Our life in this place is like God’s revenge for what our boys did here,″ she said.

Outside Miric’s apartment, in pitch dark corridors, Serbs moving into neighboring apartments collided with each other, arguing as they tried to squeeze through with washing machines and refrigerators.

``I don’t know why we’re doing all this when we have no electricity or water,″ said Mica Grbic, carrying an electric stove on his back. ``I should have trashed all this.″

Grbic and other Serbs settling in Srebrenica said that in addition to the catatonic despair hanging over the city, the crime rate is soaring, with looters robbing the new settlers or even killing each other over booty or still empty apartments.

With an irony that only twists the knife of Srebrenica’s pain one turn deeper, the main street is still named after Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the Communist strongman who ruled unquestioned over the many peoples of the old Yugoslavia for 35 years.

His death in 1980 unleashed the political maneuvering and manipulation of nationalism that turned to bloodshed that culminated here, in a once-obscure town in eastern Bosnia.

In Srebrenica’s center Thursday, between a destroyed Muslim mosque and a still-standing Serb Orthodox church, an elderly woman knelt in the middle of the street. Cars and trucks loaded with Bosnian Serbs’ belongings squeezed past her.

No one stopped. No one wanted to help the crying woman.

``She is protesting because she is hungry,″ said one passerby.

``No, she’s a mental retard,″ said another. ``Like all of us who agreed to come here.″

``Have you seen the film `Apocalypse Now?‴ asked Nebojsa Zoric, a university student who came from Sarajevo, recalling the song by The Doors that is featured in the movie.

``That is how we live here _ `This is the end, my friend.‴

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