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Yugoslavia: The Revenger’s Tragedy


The white trucks and armored personnel carriers of the UN crawl back and forth with antlike diligence between Butmir airport on the western edge of Sarajevo and the headquarters of the UN peace-keeping force just inside the city limits. The dusty roads have been chewed up by shells of all descriptions. The UN vehicles contrast brightly with the few houses still standing, gaunt carcasses blackened by fire. The trucks are manned by teen-age Canadians who admit their shock at the fanaticism of the combatants in this war. Like everybody else in Sarajevo, UN personnel are the targets of artillery fire, which thunders sporadically during the day before joining a staccato chorus of automatic weapons fire after the curfew at 10 PM when tens of thousands of citizens go into the cellars for the night.

The UN presence in the Bosnian capital has guaranteed the arrival of over two hundred planes with emergency food supplies for 300,000 starving people in Bosnia’s capital. Yet the delight with which the UN was greeted has turned sour. The aid responds to only a small number of Sarajevo’s needs while the UN force of just over one thousand men has a mandate that barely goes beyond keeping the airport open. There has been hardly any improvement in the threadbare quality of life in Sarajevo since the airport was opened. Sarajevans still place their lives at serious risk by simply walking out of the front door and into the telescopic sights of the Serb snipers in the surrounding hills.

What has happened in Sarajevo is the most flagrant crime against innocent people to have been committed since Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in June 1991. When the Serbs attacked the town of Vukovar in eastern Croatia last autumn, the Croat authorities were able to keep open supply lines across the corn fields, replenishing the town’s food stocks and ammunition. For over two months in May and June 1992—until the UN deliveries began in early July—no food entered Sarajevo, and for several weeks people were unable to leave the city. Without the protection of a United Nations convoy (an understandably reluctant guarantor), to leave has often meant to die.

The city is defended by a makeshift army, the Bosnian Territorial Defense (TO), whose leadership is drawn from former officers of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), while its foot soldiers come largely from the lumpenproletariat and criminal fraternity of Sarajevo (no less heroic for this). In Bosnia’s towns, the territorial defense force is not exclusively made up of Muslims and Croats—Bosnia’s army has a high percentage of Serb soldiers; indeed its Deputy Commander, Jovan Divljak, is a Serb.

Ranged against the Bosnian Army are the forces of the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, among them a variety of irregular Serbian groups. Their weapons include a huge collection of JNA artillery, heavy and light, with more than enough ammunition for continual bombardment. The primary aim of the shelling is to intimidate the people of Sarajevo by systematically obliterating their town and reducing its population to a frightened pack of desperate scavengers.

The Sarajevans have been astonishingly resilient; they continued the rituals of their former life for as long as they were able. Until mid-May, they sat in cafés, chatting and drinking beer, with mortars exploding around them. The angry laughter of defiance heard everywhere was forced through their drawn faces, gaunt and coarsened by a pauper’s diet. During the past few weeks, the almost incessant shelling and bombing has meant that all except the fighters, politicians, medical staff, and journalists pass their days in shelters except for two hours in the morning. Then they emerge shortly after dawn, risking death from the artillery fire coming down from the nearby hills as they stand patiently in line for the only food left—often nettles or, if they are lucky, bread. Now the UN deliveries are mitigating the shortages but they continue to be severe. The slow starvation of Sarajevo has been as appalling as the city’s bombardment, which doesn’t spare a single block, or the terrorism of snipers, who pick off children and the wounded as well as adults.

As far as the government in Sarajevo is able to ascertain, just under 1,800 people have been killed in Sarajevo since the beginning of April. This excludes victims in Serb-held parts of the city and in some neighborhoods where the fighting has been so heavy that no survey of the dead has been possible. The same source says that a minimum of six thousand people have been killed elsewhere in Bosnia-Hercegovina, although these do not include any killed behind Serbian lines. The Serbs themselves have issued no figures for their casualties, although it is known that they have sustained heavy losses of life in Hercegovina to the west and Posavina to the north. Several thousand Bosnians are unaccounted for, presumed dead or in captivity. Thousands more are trapped in places where they are surrounded by heavy fighting or are under siege and suffering severe deprivation. Bosnian officials claim privately that the real number of dead now stands at about 50,000 (a by no means incredible estimate) but because their sole sources of information in many regions are local ham radio operators, they will not state this publicly. The number of dead killed during the war in Croatia is just over 30,000 (although many have cast doubt on the Serb figures contributing to this number because of several reports which claimed that the Yugoslav National Army did not register all its deaths).

In Sarajevo, several hundred deaths have already been attributed to the consequences of siege. If much larger amounts of aid do not arrive, then this figure seems likely to rise swiftly. “They have to starve us to death because they know they can never occupy Sarajevo,” Gavrilo Grahovac said to me rather airily. “They cannot get their tanks and heavy weapons into the center of town, and they know all 300,000 of us will fight to the end.” Grahovac is the director of Svjetlost, the most successful publishing company in the former Yugoslavia. He is a Serb, one among the roughly 90,000 who remained in Sarajevo to face the devastation side by side with their Muslim, Croat, Jewish, and Yugoslav neighbors.1

In Sarajevo these ethnic and religious groups have lived and worked together—particularly in the town’s light industries, such as car assembly plants—without serious conflict since World War II. They are resisting the forces commanded by Radovan Karadzic, the president of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, whose formation was first announced last November, a month after a plebiscite of Bosnian Serbs. The battle for Sarajevo is not a nationalist struggle between Serbs on the one hand and Muslims and Croats on the other. It is a struggle between the rural and the urban; the primitive and the cosmopolitan; and, above all, between chaos and reason.


These are not exaggerated claims. Sarajevo lies not only at the geographical heart of the former Yugoslavia. It is the center of the historical tensions which have already shattered the peace in Croatia to the north and threaten the stability of a cluster of states in the southern Balkans—Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and now Macedonia—which surround the territory of the former Yugoslav republic. Sarajevo stands squarely on the historical dividing line that ran through both Yugoslavia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, on each side of which Rome and Constantinople staked out their territory after the Great Schism of the tenth century. Sarajevo is the point at which Catholic, Orthodox, and Islam meet, in the middle of the shifting imperial borderlands which separated Habsburg and Ottoman for over five centuries. The most bestial war in the Balkans was fought between 1941 and 1945 and yet, while the city has suffered horribly during times of conflict, in peacetime Sarajevo is the most inspiring example of cosmopolitan coexistence in the region. Before the present war Bosnia-Hercegovina was known as the Switzerland of the Balkans. In no other city, not even Istanbul, did the Orient and the Occident coexist so impressively as in Sarajevo.

For over three centuries, the imperial administrations of Vienna and Constantinople set up elaborate military defenses in the region. The peasants in these districts were never encouraged to farm their land, a tradition maintained by the Communists, as the region’s strikingly low regional living standards show. Instead local people were raised as fighters, and were regularly called upon to defend or conquer territory on the periphery of Croatia and Serbia, or in Bosnia-Hercegovina itself. The gun-slinging culture in Hercegovina and the adjoining Krajina2 district in Croatia is not a product of the blood feuds endemic in Montenegro or Albania. The addiction to fighting is in part a legacy of the military strategy of the two great Balkan powers, Austria and Turkey.

When the Soviet Union expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform in June 1948, Tito reacted by strengthening Bosnia’s military defenses; he thought Bosnia’s geographical position at the heart of Yugoslavia and its mountainous terrain would create severe obstacles for any attacking army. Believing that Yugoslavia could be threatened by invasion from the west and from the east, Tito transformed Bosnia-Hercegovina into a huge fortress capable of resisting foreign aggression long after Zagreb, Belgrade, or Skopje had fallen. Although Bosnia-Hercegovina makes up only one fifth of the territory of Yugoslavia, 60 percent of the country’s military industries and installations are concentrated there.

The Orthodox Serb population of Bosnia, which makes up 31 percent of the republic’s 4.3 million people, is mainly rural and spread across the northern, southern, and eastern border regions, while the Muslims dominate in the industrial towns. The Catholic Croats, 17 percent of the population, live in two relatively compact territories, western Hercegovina, i.e., in the southwest part of the republic, which lies immediately to the east of the Dalmatian coast, and the northern region of Posavina bordering on Croatia. Just under two thirds of Bosnia’s military industries were situated in Muslim and Croat districts.

Although the outcome was hardly foreseeable in the 1940s and 1950s, Bosnia became stuffed with huge supplies of weapons—artillery, tanks, rifles, and large amounts of ammunition—much of which are now being used by the 40,000 regular JNA troops under Serbian command and the thousands of irregulars who claim to be independent of the government of Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade but have no trouble getting access to the stockpiles of arms controlled by Serbian officials in Bosnia.

Because of the Belgrade government’s heavy investments in military bases and supply depots in Bosnia, the leaders of the JNA have long believed that they have more vital interests in Bosnia-Hercegovina than in any other republic. In recognition of the dangers this implied, the president of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Alija Izetbegovic, issued last autumn an urgent appeal to the European Community peace conference in Brussels and the United Nations to consider financing the peaceful transformation of the JNA in Bosnia-Hercegovina from a conscript army with a bloated officer corps into a tightly organized professional force. He convincingly argued that if the current officer corps of the JNA was not assured of its future and the continuation of its privileges, then war in Bosnia would follow, with destruction on an enormous scale. To Europe’s lasting cost, Izetbegovic was entirely ignored.

  1. 1

    Even though Yugoslavia no longer exists, more than 10 percent of Sarajevans still describe themselves as Yugoslavs (according to the latest figures issued by the Bosnian government in Sarajevo). Zdravko Grebo, professor of law at Sarajevo University, says there is no easy solution to this identity crisis: “I cannot consider myself to be a Muslim or Serb all of a sudden—I have always felt myself a Yugoslav and there’s nothing I can do about it. That’s what I remain even though the country has disappeared and my nationality is almost entirely discredited.”

  2. 2

    The name Krajina denotes the swath of land controlled by the Habsburg Empire, stretching from Dalmatia to Transylvania and known as the Military District (in Serbo-Croatian Vojna Krajina). This enormous defensive strip was developed to stop Ottoman expansion into Europe and to launch offensives against the Turks. Serb fighters in pursuit of their own political struggle with the Sublime Porte in Constantinople had frequently collaborated with the invading Habsburg forces against the Ottoman army. In the wake of one such failed Habsburg assault in the late seventeenth century, Arsenije III, the Serb patriarch of Pec in Kosovo, led 30,000 families into the Habsburg Empire to escape the wrath of the janissaries, the peculiar social class which doubled as the Sultan’s elite fighting corps. From Vienna, the emperor, Leopold I, agreed to allow these Serbs religious freedom and a measure of self-government. In return for these privileges, the Serbs swore allegiance to Vienna and agreed to populate many parts of the Vojna Krajina as military colonists. The migration led by Arsenije III effectively established the territorial problems between Serbs and Croats which remain, all too evidently, unsolved to this day.

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