CREDIBILITY OF THE UNITED NATIONS VANISHED IN BOSNIA
U.N Mission in Bosnia in a State of Collapse
By Elizabeth Neuffer
16 July 1995.
SARAJEVO — For those who live in this land devoured by hatred and scarred by war, it didn’t take the fall of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica to signal that the moment of truth for Western involvement here had arrived.
Long before U.N. soldiers in the Bosniak enclave crumbled in the face of rebel Bosnian Serbs, it was clear in capitals across the Balkans that the United Nations’ credibility here has vanished — and that belief in a Western-brokered solution has all but disappeared.
In Sarajevo, the shells raining on the city prove each day that being a U.N. “safe area” is no guarantee of safety. In the Bosnian town of Gornji Vakuf, inhabitants scoff at a new European “reaction force” assembling there; they believe that it will never be used. In Belgrade, insiders despair that the Western wooing of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic will ever bear fruit.
Western pledges and promises, resolutions and recriminations no longer seem to work during a Balkan summer in which fighting promises only to escalate, not diminish. Slowly but surely, the United States and its allies are being pushed toward the choice they had hoped to avoid: deeper military involvement or a humiliating retreat.
Neither choice is a good one. The first risks drawing Europe and the United States into a war with the Bosnian Serbs, if not Serbia itself. The second risks deployment of 25,000 U.S. troops to aid the withdrawal — and afterward almost certain acceleration of ethnic killing.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” says Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, whose government could ask the United Nations to leave when its mandate is up for renewal in November. “We cannot continue like this.”
To understand why Bosniaks who once welcomed U.N. troops now want them to leave, listen to Sabri Zimic [Bosniak man].
His 9-year old daughter, Sidbela, was recently killed by a shell as she was jumping rope outside the family’s door. The irony, Zimic says, is that he only moved his daughter back to Sarajevo from the safety of Croatia when he thought the city safe — after the United Nations last year declared Sarajevo a “heavy weapons exclusion zone” that was safe from shelling.
But that U.N. plan collapsed last month, and shells are falling freely in Sarajevo again, including the one that took Sidbela’s life.
“My child wasn’t just killed by the Chetniks [Serb soldiers, former World War II Nazi-collaborationists],” Zimic says, referring to the Serb rebels. “She was killed by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Akashi, Major, Chirac.”
Like many people here, Zimic’s blame is directed at the outside powers, widely perceived not to have done enough to stop the killing: U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.N. envoy Yasushi Akashi, British Prime Minister John Major, French President Jacques Chirac. But the United Nations itself usually comes in for the lion’s share of the blame.
For a United Nations marking its 50th anniversary, there is little to celebrate in this Bosnian capital. Almost all of the U.N. mission here is in a state of collapse.
The United Nations’ humanitarian airlift has been grounded since April, under threat from rebel Serb guns. Efforts to get aid convoys into the city are similarly stalled, leaving food reserves for the 2.7 million Bosnians who rely on U.N. deliveries dangerously low.
The “heavy weapons exclusion zone” disintegrated last month, after rebel Serb soldiers took peacekeepers guarding the heavy weapons hostage and then stole the guns back.
Last week, one of the central U.N. missions — protecting the six “safe areas” — also was called into question when rebel Serbs captured Srebrenica despite the presence of U.N. troops and NATO airstrikes.
That rout underscored doubts here and abroad about what the United Nations can accomplish here. Without the cooperation of the rebel Serbs, the United Nations cannot carry out its humanitarian mission. But the United Nations and its European members are still reluctant to force the Serbs into playing ball.
Now the Bosnian government itself is stepping up its calls for the United Nations to shape up or ship out.
Relations are so strained that Hasan Muratovic, the Bosnian government U.N. liaison, refuses to deal with Akashi, the U.N. special envoy for the former Yugoslavia.
“We have been asking them to do something — either reorganize themselves or withdraw,” Muratovic says. He thinks the 22,400 U.N. troops should be scaled back to 4,000.
The United Nations has long argued that the Bosniak people would stop peacekeepers from withdrawing, predicting scenes of hysterical women and children blocking U.N. tanks. But a scornful Muratovic disagrees.
“Who would block them?” he asks. “People hate them.”
Officials in the United States, France and Britain are expected to decide in the next few weeks whether to yank out the peacekeepers before the mountainous Bosnia is engulfed by the winter snows. Such an operation would entail sending up to 55,000 NATO troops — 25,000 of them promised by the Clinton administration — to make sure that U.N. personnel and equipment are extracted fully and safely. The troops themselves could well be caught up in the confusing ethnic war.
Bosniaks, interviewed from the city of Tomislavgrad in the east to Jablanica in the south, say they wouldn’t stand in the United Nations’ way — particularly if a retreat led to lifting the arms embargo here, a measure now being pushed by Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, who expects to introduce a resolution to that effect this week.
If the United Nations can’t protect Bosnia, they argue, led Bosniaks protect themselves.
On the dirt track across Mount Igman, the Bosnian Army is moving.
Heavy-soled boots thump in the darkness. Soldiers appear and disappear in the mist. This road, the only link between Sarajevo and the rest of Bosnia, is now key to an ongoing summer offensive launched by the Bosniaks against the rebel Serbs.
With the United Nations unable to deliver food and aid to Sarajevo, the Bosnian army last month decided to begin a military push to free the city. But it is a dangerous gamble — with risks both for the Bosniak people and the future of U.N. and Western efforts.
Each Bosniak success on the battlefield is met with retaliation: Rebel Bosnian Serb guns pound Sarajevo and other enclaves, claiming scores of lives. U.N. troops across Bosnia are pinned uncomfortably between Bosnian army guns firing at the Serbs and the shells that answer in return.
As the Serbs demonstrated this week in Srebrenica, the Bosnian army can do little to protect its highly exposed enclaves. Now Zepa, Gorazde and Bihac are vulnerable to the better-armed Serbs.
Liberating Sarajevo, U.N. and other Western officials say, is unlikely anytime soon.
But Bosnian Army officers say that liberating the city doesn’t necessarily mean defeating the rebel Serbs encircling it. It could mean securing a safe corridor through Bosnian territory to use for bringing in food and aid. Opening such a corridor could spell an end to the badly battered U.N. mission, whose original aim was to feed the city.
“The day is not that far away when we can feed ourself,” said Gen. Jovan Divjak [the highest ranking Serb] of the Bosnian Army high command.
Just a year ago, violent fighting between the Bosniak-led Bosnian government and Bosnian Croats consumed Gornji Vakuf. But a U.N. cease-fire brought a halt to fighting. An agreement brokered in Washington, D.C., forged a federation between the two sides.
Now, a town once ravaged by war is rebuilding its houses, largely thanks to the U.N. troops who helped bring the warring sides together. There is water and electricity. There is trade. International aid is trickling in.
Should the United Nations withdraw, however, there is little guarantee that peace will last.
On Gornji Vakuf’s outskirts lies what some European leaders hope is part of the answer: Task Force Alpha, part of the new multinational reaction force dispatched here to bolster the U.N. peacekeepers. When the force was announced last month, European leaders predicted that its artillery and heavy weapons would put backbone in the U.N. and stop peace-keepers from being taking hostage, largely by the rebel Serbs.
Since then, however, a painful truth has become clear: The 10,000-troop force is subject to u.N. rules of military engagement, making it difficult to use their heavy artillery. U.N. soldiers can only use their weapons in self-defense.
And it can only operate with the “strategic consent” of both the warring parties, as special envoy Akashi assured rebel Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in a letter this month.
Now skepticism so shrouds the new force’s mission that U.N. officials have dropped the word “rapid” from its title.
Following the U.N.’s failure to protect Srebrenica, debate again is swirling about how the force could best be used.
French President Jacques Chirac has said that his soldiers would act to retake the enclave should the U.N. Security Council agree. The Security Council has greeted this offer skeptically.
To send in a fighting force would mean having U.N. soldiers fight directly against the rebel Serbs. Any semblance of neutrality would be lost at that point. Hostage-taking would be almost certain.
Meanwhile, suspicion is growing that the force will see its first action in the event of a U.N. withdrawal — securing roads and safeguarding communications links preparatory to the pullout.
Miles upon miles of mountains and minefields separate Belgrade, the Serbian capital, from the raging Bosnian war. But no peace is possible without Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose call in the late 1980s for “greater Serbia” was a crucial element in touching off the conflict.
Having found who can broker peace, however, the West is still unsure how to make Milosevic deliver it.
He is widely suspected of providing the rebel Bosnian Serbs with much-needed fuel. And some see Milosevic’s hand in the most recent Srebrenica assault.
“It is in Milosevic’s interest to have consolidated territory,” says a Western diplomat. “This was a deal struck long ago.”
Unfortunately, wooing Milosevic — assuming the courtship is working — means forgoing a stepped-up U.N. force to attack the rebel Serbs. The Serbian leader would have no choice but to come to their aid.
While the West tries to sort through its options, the Bosniaks suffer and the Bosnian Serbs advance; in the end, many people say, it is up to Belgrade — and Milosevic — to halt the war. As chief of the Serbs, his influence over Serb warlords is the greatest.
“The crisis in Yugoslavia is like a puzzle — all the elements are there,” muses Ranko Petkovic, editor-in-chief of International Politics, an independent journal in Belgrade.
“They just have to be fit together. Only Milosevic can do that.”