Serb conquests challenge the fragile credibility of the United Nations
BARRY CAME with correspondents’ reportsJuly241995
THE OUTRAGE OF SNIABO
Serb conquests challenge the fragile credibility of the United Nations
The scene was sadly familiar, another outrage in the war that continues to ravage Bosnia. It occurred under a hot midday sun in Potocari last week, not long after a force of 1,500 Bosnian Serbs rolled into the hamlet at the northern end of the Srebrenica valley. Thousands of milling refugees, described by one UN official as being “hungry, dirty and in very, very poor shape,” cried out in despair as the conquering Serb troops commenced their grim task. While blue-helmeted Dutch peacekeepers watched helplessly, the Serbs separated the young men from the other refugees, then herded the children and elderly aboard a fleet of 40 trucks and buses. “It was quite horrifying,” said France’s Stephan Oberreit of the medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières. “There was screaming and crying and panic. They didn’t know where they were being taken.”
More than 3,000 refugees were rounded up and shipped out of the Srebrenica valley the day after the UN-protected enclave in eastern Bosnia fell into the hands of invading Serb forces. Thousands more followed as the Serbs, with characteristic ruthless efficiency, embarked on yet another rampage of ethnic cleansing. Within days, most of the 40,000 predominantly Muslim refugees in the United Nation’s “safe haven” at Srebrenica were on the march, blazing what a Geneva-based official of the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees termed a 65-km-long “trail of tears” across northeastern Bosnia. And by week’s end, the stage was set for an even wider tragedy as Serb troops advanced on Zepa, one of the two remaining UN enclaves in eastern Bosnia, where 79 Ukrainian peacekeepers were protecting up to 20,000 civilians and refugees. Gorazde, the other immediately vulnerable refuge is now home for another 60,000 people. Declared UNHCR spokesman Alemka Lisinski: ‘We are facing a humanitarian disaster of the first order.”
Thousands of dazed, grief-stricken refugees streamed into the relative safety of UN-protected Tuzla in northern Bosnia late last week where they overwhelmed relief workers. Food and water were in short supply and the heat exacerbated their plight. “It’s a huge mess,” said Lars Morkholt, a Danish observer. “No one has food for these people or clothing or medicine. All we can do is just dump them in a field and more or less leave them there.”
The refugees carried few belongings, but were burdened by harrowing tales of the emerging disaster in Srebrenica. They reported widespread rape and murder, with bodies left hanging from the trees and littering the streets. “The first night the Serbs were in the town, we heard screaming in the streets until morning,” said Haka Nukic, a 67-year-old grandmother. “They took women away and did bad things to them and killed the men the way you slaughter cattle.” Even later, after the women and the children and the old were loaded onto buses for the outward trek, the terror continued. “When the media disappeared, the soldiers started taking people off the buses,” said Zula Hasanovic. ‘We know they raped the girls because some of them came back and told us, but most of them did not return.”
Despite their appalling plight, however, the refugees are not the only casualties of the latest Bosnian crisis. For the Serbs, by their seizure of Srebrenica, may well have dealt a crippling, perhaps fatal, blow to the United Nation’s entire peacekeeping mission in the country. The enclave’s fall has clearly placed in dire jeopardy the policy of safe havens that has been central to the UN mandate in the
former Yugoslavia for the past two years. At the same time, it has increased the chances of a pullout of the 24,700 UN troops—850 of them Canadian— that are scattered across the country. And that, in turn, is an unsettling prospect that would require the dispatch of a 70,000to 80,000-strong NATO force, including at least 25,000 U.S. ground troops, to extricate the beleaguered blue berets and their tons of equipment.
Officials on both sides of the Atlantic, while preparing for an “emergency” meeting in London on July
21, took pains last week to stress their determination to maintain the UN presence in Bosnia, at least for the time being. In Ottawa, Defence Minister David Collenette indicated that, while Canada continues to harbor doubts about the ability of the United Nations to carry out its mandate in Bosnia, there were no immediate plans to withdraw the Canadian troops who are in the country (page 24). In Brussels, Canada’s ambassador to NATO, John Anderson, emerged from a meeting with fellow envoys to claim that a Western withdrawal is the “last thing” NATO allies want, despite growing frustration about the Bosnia mission. And UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, on a visit to Athens late last week, claimed that he would continue to “do whatever ought to be done to maintain the presence of UN troops in the former Yugoslavia, in spite of the pressure that we receive to encourage the pullout of the troops.”
At the same time, however, there were broad hints from all the Western governments involved that withdrawal from Bosnia is an option that is growing more and more likely. “Our troops are not going to be there forever,” Collenette remarked as he announced the intention to withdraw 17 peacekeepers, who have been besieged by Bosnian government forces at remote observation posts, to the relative safety of the main Canadian base at Visoko, 35 km northwest of Sarajevo. In London, British Prime Minister John Major told the House of Commons: “Unless the warring parties are prepared soon to indicate that they are prepared to return to some form of discussion to reach a political settlement there is no doubt that continuing fighting would put the continuing presence of the United Nations at risk.”
Major then arranged for this week’s meeting of NATO powers, including Canada, and other involved parties, such as Russia, to discuss possible next steps in light of the UN humiliation in Bosnia. But outside of France, which argued for immediate retaliatory reaction, there were few suggestions for concrete action. French President Jacques Chirac proposed that the 10,000-strong rapid reaction force now being created by the French, British and Dutch armies in Bosnia be sent into action to retake Srebrenica by force of arms. “If we do not react,” Chirac argued, “then we have to ask ourselves what purpose the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) is serving there and draw the appropriate conclusions.” Many in the United States have already drawn those conclusions, in particular Senate majority leader and Republican presidential hopeful Robert Dole. “It’s time to end this farce,” he said as he announced that he would introduce a binding resolution in the Senate this week to disassociate the United States from the international arms embargo that has prevented the Bosnian Muslims from buying the kind of weaponry needed to mount a credible defence against the Serb rebels. But such an action would inevitably escalate hostilities and trigger a UN peacekeeping withdrawal that, in turn, would draw American military forces into the Bosnian quagmire to help in the rescue operation.
For his part, President Clinton rejected any unilateral lifting of the arms boycott. But although clearly anxious to avoid sending U.S. troops on a dangerous rescue mission, Clinton was forced to acknowledge that the UN peace effort was on shaky
ground and might require a U.S.-led bailout. “Unless we can restore the integrity of the UN mission, obviously its days will be numbered,” Clinton said.
In effect, the Western powers are paralyzed. The UN forces are insufficient to prevent Serb—or Bosnian—aggression, and air attacks put the peacekeepers at risk as hostages. A pullout, on the other hand, would surely lead to the deaths of more innocent civilians. And in another, perverse, sign of how desperate the situation had become, there were reports at week’s end that Muslims in the beseiged enclave of Zepa fired on their UN protectors in an attempt to capture their weapons to fight the attacking Serbs.
Evacuation of the peacekeepers would take an estimated five months, primarily because of the difficulties involved in withdrawing close to 25,000 troops and tons of equipment currently scattered throughout
Bosnia. “Much of the terrain is mountainous and many of the UNPROFOR units are in isolated and vulnerable positions,” General John Shalikashvili, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff, pointed out last month as he described the evacuation plan. “A secure withdrawal of all of these forces presents many obstacles and difficulties.” Not least is the fact that an American presence on the ground in Bosnia opens a new and unpredictable phase in a conflict that is already volatile. Despite the obvious perils, however, there may well be few other alternatives. Even before the Bosnian Serbs overran Srebrenica, the UN mission was unravelling. The seizure of the enclave accelerated the process, underlining the enormous difficulty of sending lightly armed troops to keep the peace in a place where the principal players are intent on waging war.
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