Fearsome Muslim Warlord Eludes Bosnian Serb Forces

The Toronto Star, July 16, 1995, Pg. A1

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia - When Bosnian Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladic swept triumphantly into Srebrenica last week, he not only wanted to sweep Srebrenica clean of Muslims - he wanted Nasir Oric.

In Mladic's view, the powerfully built Muslim commander had made life too difficult and too deadly for Serb communities nearby.

Even though the Serbs had Srebrenica surrounded, Oric was still mounting commando raids by night against Serb targets.

Oric, as blood-thirsty a warrior as ever crossed a battlefield, escaped Srebrenica before it fell. Some believe he may be leading the Bosnian Muslim forces in the nearby enclaves of Zepa and Gorazde. Last night these forces seized armored personnel carriers and other weapons from U.N. peacekeepers in order to better protect themselves.

Oric is a fearsome man, and proud of it.

I met him in January, 1994, in his own home in Serb-surrounded Srebrenica.

On a cold and snowy night, I sat in his living room watching a shocking video version of what might have been called Nasir Oric's Greatest Hits.

There were burning houses, dead bodies, severed heads, and people fleeing.

Oric grinned throughout, admiring his handiwork.

"We ambushed them," he said when a number of dead Serbs appeared on the screen.

The next sequence of dead bodies had been done in by explosives: "We launched those guys to the moon," he boasted.

When footage of a bullet-marked ghost town appeared without any visible bodies, Oric hastened to announce: "We killed 114 Serbs there."

Later there were celebrations, with singers with wobbly voices chanting his praises.

These video reminiscences, apparently, were from what Muslims regard as Oric's glory days. That was before most of eastern Bosnia fell and Srebrenica became a "safe zone" with U.N. peacekeepers inside - and Serbs on the outside.

Lately, however, Oric increased his hit-and-run attacks at night. And in Mladic's view, it was far too successful for a community that was supposed to be suppressed.

The Serbs regard Oric, once Serb President Slobodan Milosevic's personal bodyguard, as a war criminal.

But they don't want to send him to the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. They want to track him down and kill him.

The only songs they want sung of Nasir Oric are funeral dirges.

But that hasn't happened.

Srebrenica, surrounded by 3,000 armed Serbs as it was then, was a strange town. It held a desperate kind of life - a life in suspended animation.

People talked about what they used to do, or used to be. Or about what they would do or would become once they were free again.

Sleeping beneath the sheltering sky near Tuzla as Srebrenica's surviving residents did last week - after having been driven from their homes - was not in their catalogue of expectations.

I remember steep streets lined with snow and, everywhere, firewood.

Srebrenica, an old silver mining town, was built to hold 4,500 residents, but was then crammed with 22,500. And the overall pocket, some 14 kilometres wide by 16 kilometres long, had swelled to 46,000 in all.

It had the look and feel of an overcrowded, somewhat dilapidated, ski resort town.

But it was anything but.

Still, people were friendly. The face of an outsider, an unexplained newcomer, came as a pleasant surprise to them and I was welcomed into their homes, served tea brewed on makeshift firewood stoves, and treated with kindness.

There was, even then, some tension in the air about our Canadian peacekeepers there. But they were still doing a good job - even an excellent one - despite extraordinarily high expectations.

I got into Srebrenica by convincing Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that the time was right for a journalist to visit. None had been allowed for more than 100 days. People were wondering what was going on behind the curtain.

In the end, another journalist asked to come along. He had a vehicle, and I didn't. It was a good trade-off.

But what we smelled there, besides the smoke of a thousand and one cooking fires, was the slow death of hope.

No one wanted to admit it was a hopeless situation. They wanted to believe that someone, something, perhaps some extraordinary act of fate, was going to save them and their town.

They just didn't know what it was. And that not knowing ate away at them, just as their thinning food supplies, having been choked off by the Serbs, did.

At the very end of the only real street that led all the way down into the town and became, in effect, main street, I'll always remember dozens of kids taking turns whizzing across a pool of sheer ice, their bottoms protected by worn pieces of thin cardboard.

We don't use the word "glee" anymore. But that's what it was then. Glee on Main Street, Downtown Srebrenica.

A bit of laughter against the cold. A bit of glee in the face of inevitable doom.

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II separator line
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