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A Mother in Their Dreams Only

March 17, 1996

TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ In the middle of the night, the little sisters of Srebrenica cry and scream and tremble.

The memory of their mother’s head being blown off during a shelling attack is still frightening nearly three years later.

Their father was seen being led away by Serb soldiers when Srebrenica fell last July. He hasn’t been heard from since.

They will remember the inhumanity and brutality of the war for the rest of their lives.

They are five sisters in all, the youngest six, the oldest 18. All they have are each other, a grandfather, an uncle, three aunts and the housemothers at the orphanage where they now live.

Overcome with the horrendous deeds of war, there is no peace of mind even if there is peace, for now, on the battlefields.

``It is quite normal for hatred to exist because they’ve done terrible things to us,″ says the eldest, Emira Ibrahimovic, who is now the surrogate mother.

Their real mother, Emina, was too young to die, only 35, an innocent of the war between Serb and Muslim.

As Emira tells it, war chased their Muslim family from village to village in the Srebrenica region, and it was during one of those flights, on July 25, 1992, that a shell hit near the fleeing refugees, killing Emina.

Emira was not with her. Nor was Muska, now 12. But Sanela, now 6, Semsa, 8, and Ibrima, 16, were eyewitnesses. Sanela was three then, too young to remember.

But Semsa, then five, remembers. There is still a scar on her head from a piece of shrapnel. The body has long been healed, but the mind is still a casualty.

Semsa is silent, retreating into her world of dolls and stuffed animals and other toys. When she is with them, a smile lights up her face.

Save for the oldest sister, Emira, none of the others will talk about their mother. And Emira, just barely.

The two youngest girls are painfully shy. When visitors arrive, Sanela hides under a bed. Semsa holds her head down and puts her hands over her eyes.

Semsa’s eyes fill with tears when oldest sister Emira recalls the day their mother died.

``There were a lot of shellings and an attack because the Serbs were quite close and in a position to spot us,″ recalls Emira. ``Many people ran away from the village.″

Emira was just behind her mother and sisters. She had stopped at their house to pick up some belongings.

``I heard the two little girls screaming, but I did not know what happened,″ she remembers. ``They ran away. Adults from the village buried my mother. They did not allow us to look at her terrible state. They tried to protect us.″

Emira found her younger sisters in a neighboring village 10 minutes away. Villagers bandaged Semsa’s wounds. She cried and said she wanted to return to her mother.

After two days, the sisters returned to their own village, living with their paternal grandfather, Fadil Ibrahimovic, 65. Their father, Omer, a 41-year-old construction worker, was in Libya. He returned the day after Christmas in 1992.

When the Serbs attacked Srebrenica last July, the sisters and their grandfather fled to Tuzla. Their father fled into the forest but another relative reported he was captured along with many others. He is among the 8,000 Muslims still missing from Srebrenica.

``Still we hope,″ says Emira. ``We hope maybe he’s in some concentration camp, not registered. But with every day that hope is less and less.″

That is the sadness. But there is a smile later when the mood changes to banter, when someone suggests that Emira, a hairdresser who has already cut her sisters’ hair short, will do it again.

``I will not let her cut my hair again,″ says Semsa.

Semsa is finishing her first year of elementary school. Sanela begins school next September. Muska is in the sixth grade and Emira just completed a course in hair styling and hopes to leave the orphanage soon. Both Semsa and Muska have received excellent evaluations in school.

Only Ibrima is not in school for the moment. She completed only the fourth grade, which is customary in some villages in eastern Bosnia, where Muslim tradition stresses the role of women as homemakers.

The sisters can stay at the orphanage until they complete secondary school or get a job. They have been there since last August. If Emira gets a job, she plans to leave the orphanage but her sisters will stay. Emira, who turns 19 in October, will stay in the Tuzla area to be near them.

When they can, the sisters exchange visits with their grandfather and an uncle, Hamdija Nuratovic, 32, who lives 25 miles away. The uncle has been helping them out financially, with what money he can afford.

There is a 35-year-old aunt nearby, too, Suada Effendic, their mother’s sister. But Emira has visited her only once.

``I can’t stand to go there and visit that aunt because she looks so much like my mother,″ says Emira.

Emira’s mother is still with her in her dreams, and they talk, just as the family often did when they sat down to dinner in Srebrenica.

``All of us, we are together,″ says Emira. ``Like nothing happened.″

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