Bloodied Muslims Pin Their Hopes on Bill Clinton

The Washington Post
April 20, 1993

TUZLA, Bosnia – Hours after being evacuated by U. N. helicopters from the hell of besieged Srebrenica, some of its exhausted Muslim defenders flopped onto hospital beds here and talked in wishful tones about a man they had never seen or heard. They were talking about Bill Clinton.

“We believe in Clinton,” said Edhem Omerovic, whose left leg was shredded by a Serb tank shell. “All our hopes are with him. All he needs to do is send in three planes to take out the Serb artillery around Srebrenica; our infantry will take care of the rest.”

Other Muslim militiamen in nearby beds gave tired nods of agreement. One of them was Senad Alic, whose left leg was amputated without benefit of anesthetic in Srebrenica. Now, after being airlifted from the shattered city along with hundreds of other wounded men, women and children, he smiled at the mention of Clinton’s name.

Negib Belic, who also lost a leg to a Serb tank shell, said hopefully that “Clinton is coming around to the right ideas” — a reference to recent reports that the president is considering a more forceful U.S. role in Bosnia’s bloody factional war. “We have great hopes that America will save us.”

But their hopes seem likely to be disappointed, because clearly more than three air strikes would be needed to loosen the year-old stranglehold Serb nationalist forces have on the city, and because there is no hint that President Clinton or any other Western leader will use direct military force to counter Serb aggression in Bosnia.

Still, it is all the wounded Muslims have to hope for, because they can’t figure out any other way to save their brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers left behind among the 60,000 hungry, desperate souls still trapped in Srebrenica. “The other side has all the guns, and we practically have to fight with bare hands,” Omerovic said, raising his own shaking hands, stained with months of dirt and grime. “The only hope for Bosnia is intervention.”

It’s a refrain that has been heard from Bosnia’s Slavic Muslim-led government and its poorly armed defense forces for more than a year now, as powerful Bosnian Serb militia units — motivated and heavily armed by neighboring Serbia — seized more than 70 percent of the republic in a fierce campaign that has left more than 20,000 dead and 1.4 million homeless, most of them Muslims. The appeal became more plaintive in recent weeks as Serb forces closed in on Srebrenica, shelling defenseless civilians in blanket artillery attacks that prompted denunciations around the world.

Saying they saw no other way to avert further suffering in Srebrenica, U.N. officials have mediated a local truce designed to “demilitarize” the city by requiring its Muslim defenders to turn over their weapons to U.N. troops and allowing all who want to leave the city to do so under U.N. protection. It also permitted immediate U.N. air evacuation here to Muslim-held Tuzla of nearly 500 severely wounded people from Srebrenica — about 90 percent of them Muslim combatants who had been hit by Serb shellfire.

In crowded hospital wards here, and in an empty basement that has been turned into an impromptu medical center, they are smoking their first cigarettes and eating the first fresh food in months. Many are too tired or too ill to talk; they lie in their beds, moaning or sleeping or staring at the ceiling. Others are hale enough to have let out a round of applause when a nurse announced this afternoon that they will be able to bathe soon — for the first time in months.

Meanwhile, they lie next to each other, talking about what they have been through, trying to figure out what will come next. More than a half-dozen militiamen interviewed here said they believe the U.N.-brokered truce for Srebrenica amounts to a virtual surrender of the city and that its Muslim defenders will refuse to lay down their arms.

They said the besieging Serbs — who have repeatedly violated cease-fire accords throughout the war — will jump at the opportunity to storm the defenseless city and kill everyone in sight and that a token U.N. force there will not stand in their way. “Nobody will give up their weapons,” said Omerovic.

But Srebrenica’s defenders are heavily outgunned, and the wounded Muslims here acknowledged that it will surely fall to the Serbs unless Western military intervention prevents it. Serb capture of Srebrenica was the biggest fear they had while lying wounded in there because they would be unable to flee.

“The {Serbs} were shooting all around, and I knew that with this leg I could never get away,” said Belic. He was referring to the stump of the leg that was amputated 10 days ago, then covered with a bandage that was not changed till he was evacuated Sunday.

Still, Belic says he has hope for the future because there is a chance Bill Clinton will save the town he lost a leg defending. As a visitor left the ward this afternoon, Belic waved goodbye and said: “See you in Srebrenica.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.