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Bosnia: The Tragic Prospect

Large and seemingly unlikely political changes will have to take place before November in order to avoid a momentous catastrophe in the Balkans. The primary threat to the region is posed by the prospect that war in Bosnia-Herzegovina will continue into the winter, cutting off many thousands from humanitarian aid, and leaving them to die from cold, starvation, and illness. This threat, moreover, is compounded by a number of secondary conflicts and problems which must receive urgent attention in order to prevent regional conflict from breaking out of its bloody Bosnian prison and causing havoc first in Croatia and then in what is left of Yugoslavia—i.e., in Serbia and Montenegro.

The rejection of the Owen-Stoltenberg peace plan by the Bosnian parliament on September 29 appeared to bury the possibility that an unjust but necessary peace settlement would be made. Only by accepting the plan could the Bosnians have set in motion the huge aid program needed during the coming winter to sustain the civilian population of all three communities, but the urban Muslims above all.

At the beginning of October, President Izetbegovic was expected to address the United Nations General Assembly, giving rise to faint hopes that a compromise may yet be reached; but most observers remained skeptical. When confronted with the prospect of winter, Izetbegovic said that “it will be very difficult but I think we will be able to survive it.” Not all ministers in his government agree. In Sarajevo I was told by Hussein Ahmovic, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s minister of food distribution, that “unless we get massive humanitarian help this winter, Bosnia is set to suffer a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.” Mr. Ahmovic explained that although last winter was unexpectedly mild, most trees in districts under government control were cut down to provide heat. Housing has been depleted by some 70 percent while the people of Sarajevo have already burnt most of their books to keep warm. Food stocks are only 10 percent of those available at this time last year. Doctors in Sarajevo have recently reported an outbreak of a hepatitis epidemic with over four hundred cases recorded in the city. The local authorities have appealed for the airlift of one hundred tons of rat poison, because the cities of Sarajevo, Zenica, and Tuzla are now infested by vermin. Perhaps most telling of all, according to Mr. Ahmovic, the average loss of weight of citizens throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina since the beginning of the war in April 1992 has been twenty kilograms—forty-four pounds.

Sarajevo’s plight, however, is modest compared with the desperate conditions elsewhere in the republic. Each day 35,000 Muslims seek protection from hundreds of Croat shells which land in the eastern part of Mostar. These people are living in “a sub-stone age society,” as one aid worker described it; and their compatriots who are surrounded by Serb forces in the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Srebenica, Zepa, and Gorazde are little better off. The United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees in Sarajevo has issued an urgent appeal to allow aid to be delivered to the Muslim population of the Maglaj-Tesanj region, which is under joint attack by Serb and Croat forces. According to amateur radio reports, people there are already starving.

In addition, large parts of the remaining civilian Croat population of central Bosnia are cut off from aid deliveries or are subject to a brutal campaign of atrocities and “ethnic cleansing” which is being carried out by members of the Bosnian Army’s Sixth Corpus. On September 14, UN troops found the victims of one particularly bestial massacre of twenty-nine Croat civilians (all, except for one fourteen-year-old girl, pensioners who died either in their beds or while trying to hide from Muslim forces). Altogether more than one hundred innocent Croats died during the fighting in the region on the preceding day. The UN has confirmed the deaths of several hundred Croat civilians in Central Bosnia as the Muslim offensive has gained momentum over the past two months. The human rights commissioner appointed by the Security Council, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, has already published details of atrocities committed by Croat forces on Muslims earlier this year.

Behind the rejection of the Owen-Stoltenberg plan lies a deep division within Bosnia’s war-ravaged Muslim population. Many Sarajevans were appalled by the Bosnian parliament’s decision. In a telephone poll conducted by the independent news station Radio Zid, the ratio of callers in favor of the peace plan to those against was nine to one. Other opinion polls confirm that a very large majority of Sarajevans would have accepted the plan. Their mood was summed up by the message scrawled prominently on a wall in downtown Sarajevo: “Sign it, Alija, Sign it! Even if all we get is a backyard!”

But the cities whose inhabitants appear to want an end to the war at any cost have also been swelled by the victims of “cleansing” from other parts of Bosnia who have nothing more to lose. They have nowhere to return to after the signing of a plan that would legitimize the seizure of their homes and the leveling of their villages. The weight of their opinion has combined with that of the two other groups that oppose the peace plan: the Bosnian armed forces in central and western Bosnia, who have been encouraged by the success of their offensive against the Croats of the region, and the increasingly influential radical wing of President Izetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA), whose base in Zenica north of Sarajevo has become a center of Muslim nationalism and, it must be said, intolerance. The Zenica authorities were the first to undertake “cleansing” operations against Croats earlier this year. They were also instrumental in creating the Bosnian Muslim Assembly, where Serbs and Croats loyal to the Bosnian government have no voting rights. Pressure from the Muslim Assembly which met in Sarajevo a day before parliament opened had a strong influence on the parliamentary decision to reject the peace plan.

Immediately following the collapse of the Owen-Stoltenberg plan, the Bosnian Serb parliament withdrew the territorial concessions they had previously made to the Muslims. The Croat parliament in western Herzegovina has passed a similar resolution. Although the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, said that the Bosnian Serbs would be prepared to return to the negotiating table, the assembly passed a resolution blocking Muslim access to the Sava River at Brcko, one of the key demands made by the Bosnian government at the peace talks in Geneva. Each time a peace settlement collapses in Bosnia, the Muslims lose more territory and more people. There are few signs of talks being revived but time is running out; civilians will be suffering the effects of winter in November.

In the Bihac pocket, the small government-controlled enclave north of Sarajevo that has become the stronghold of moderate Muslims, the split over the plan has now brought the region to the verge of civil war.1 A week before the Owen-Stoltenberg plan was to be debated by the Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, the leader of the Bihac Muslims, Fikret Abdic, announced the formation of the Autonomous Zone of Western Bosnia which no longer recognized the authority of Sarajevo to determine the fate of its 300,000 inhabitants. The reaction from Sarajevo was swift. First, Abdic was dismissed from the country’s nine-man presidential council for advocating acceptance for the Owen-Stoltenberg plan. Then President Izetbegovic himself denounced the creation of the autonomous zone as treachery and called on the Fifth Corpus of the Bosnian army stationed in Bihac to overthrow Abdic.

The following day, the army took control of the Bihac pocket and announced it had assumed authority. The people of Bihac responded by holding demonstrations throughout the region demanding the restoration of Abdic and condemning Izetbegovic, who ordered his troops in Bihac to use force if they encountered any resistance. In the first two days of fighting, the UN authorities in Bihac confirmed that twelve people had been killed—seven Bosnian Army soldiers and five Abdic loyalists, including at least two civilians. It is no secret that Fikret Abdic is immensely corrupt; yet in order to feed, clothe, and arm the people of Bihac he has successfully made deals with the Serbs in the Croatian Krajina, the Croats in Zagreb, and the UN’s French battalion stationed in the pocket. Above all he has kept the residents of the Bihac region alive.

President Izetbegovic’s rejection of the peace plan and his decision, announced on Sarajevo radio and TV, to overthrow Abdic by force are signs of moral bankruptcy. Such policies can only result in the deaths of many more thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Muslims. The Bosnian president appears determined to join the bloodsoaked group of ex-Yugoslav leaders—with Slobodan Milosevic as commander and Franjo Tudjman as his subaltern—who are committed to sacrificing the lives of their compatriots for the sake of their own political goals. In the case of Izetbegovic (and probably Tudjman as well), there is virtually no chance of realizing those goals.

It is not only the Muslim community which is rapidly being fragmented. Cracks are beginning to appear throughout the statelets of former Yugoslavia. Even if a peace agreement were signed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the decay of state authority in Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia would almost certainly guarantee that the northern Balkans would remain in turmoil.

The situation in Croatia is particularly risky, since President Franjo Tudjman maintains he will no longer accept Serb control of the Krajina region of Croatia, where some 200,000 Serbs live under a Serb regime patrolled by the UN. The Croatian economy is now spiraling downward. The Croatian dinar (soon to be transformed into the kuna)2 has less and less value in a situation approaching hyperinflation. Tourists, on whom Croatia’s foreign currency reserves depend, are staying away from a coastline which is well within the range of Serb artillery.

The impact of this economic crisis is being felt deeply along the Dalmatian coast. The supply of electricity to Split, the regional capital, is turned off by the authorities throughout the day. Factory workers are being laid off and, as a consequence, resentment toward Zagreb and its government is growing, as are demands for autonomy, for which there is a long tradition. This process is already advanced in the region of Istria, where a substantial part of the population regards President Tudjman’s government as little more than an occupying power.

Croatia’s economy could revive if Zagreb were able to reestablish control over the Serb-occupied territories which are now patrolled by the United Nations Protection Force. Knin, the Serb stronghold, stands between Zagreb and Split, making transport and communication between them almost impossible. Frustrated by this situation, Tudjman twice ordered attacks on Serb positions this year. When he last did so, in early September, the Serbs replied by firing a ground-to-ground missile on Lucko, a Zagreb suburb, and three missiles on Jastrebarsko, a town twenty miles south of Zagreb; they also heavily shelled Karlovac, a Croat town on the border of northern Krajina. Such exchanges may grow in intensity.

  1. 1

    See my article on Bihac in these pages, August 11, 1993.

  2. 2

    The Croatian government originally intended to call its new currency the Kruna (crown). Under pressure from right-wingers, this was changed to the kuna, the name of Croatia’s currency during the wartime fascist regime of Ante Pavelic.

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