JOHN BIERMAN July 15 1991



JOHN BIERMAN July 15 1991




Armed not with guns but with indignation, driven not by patriotic fervor but by outraged mother love, some 500 women from all parts of Yugoslavia bused into the front lines of Slovenia’s secessionist struggle last week. Their mission: to bring their soldier sons home from a war that they did not want them to fight. At a federal army barracks near Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, they besieged the commanding officer of a unit that was composed largely of teenage conscripts. “Where is my son?” wailed one mother, Bojana Huseinovic. “He’s dead. I know he’s dead.” Then, when 18-year-old Ivan Huseinovic appeared, unharmed and in good health, his mother rushed weeping to embrace him. Ivan’s three sisters, who had travelled north with their mother from Belgrade, ran forward too, smothering him with kisses and playing with his hair. Ivan blushed and shrugged his shoulders, clearly embarrassed.

Around him, similar scenes were played out. And if the moment had elements of pathos and comedy, it also made a significant point about Yugoslavia’s incipient civil war: that ultimately only a handful of hard-line generals may consider it a conflict worth waging.

The mothers’ invasion of the Slovenian battle zone was not the only significant intervention last week. The 35-nation Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) called for a ceasefire and asked the 12-nation European Community to monitor it. The EC foreign ministers, meeting in emergency session in The Hague, agreed to do so and also instructed a three-man delegation to “organize political dialogue” between the Yugoslav government and its two secessionist republics, Slovenia and Croatia. As well, the EC banned arms exports and froze all aid to the Yugoslav government, including a recently approved $1billion financial package, until there is a peaceful settlement. Meanwhile, in Washington, the U.S. administration moved away from its original policy of outright opposition to Slovenian and Croatian independence, saying that those republics should decide their own future by peaceful means. And Ottawa followed with a

similar line. Said Prime Minister Brian Mulroney: “Canada will support any arrangement for a new Yugoslavia, provided it is arrived at peacefully.”

Despite such shifts in emphasis, Western governments clearly remained reluctant to encourage secession among Yugoslavia’s six republics and two autonomous provinces. Their main concern was that the breakup of Yugoslavia could further incite nationalist movements within the Soviet Union and even cause the downfall of its reformist president, Mikhail Gorbachev. Like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia is a Communist federation seriously weakened by ethnic and ideological differences. And on July 5, in his first public comment on the Yugoslav crisis, Gorbachev said that it was “a lesson and also a warning” for the Soviet people. With six of the Soviet Union’s 15 republics refusing to sign a new treaty redefin-

ing relations between them and the Kremlin, Gorbachev declared: “What is happening in Yugoslavia makes us understand that we have to follow the path of renewal and not disintegration.”

Indeed, there were ominous signs of impending disintegration in Yugoslavia late last week. In a television broadcast on Saturday, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic warned the republic’s 9.3 million people to be prepared for war. He said that Serbia had no interest in stopping those who wanted to leave Yugoslavia but, in a clear reference to Serbian enclaves within breakaway Croatia, he added: “I believe that the Yugoslav army should be on the territories that are populated by peoples who opt to live in Yugoslavia together and in peace.” And in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, Information Minister Hrvoje Hitrec said that some army units, under the control of Serbian

officers, were not returning to their bases after taking part in earlier attacks against Slovenian secessionist forces. “We think this is a synchronized start of an attack against Croatia,” Hitrec told reporters. “If it happens, it will happen very soon, in the next few days.”

In Belgrade and elsewhere, observers expressed doubts about the ability of Yugoslavia’s cumbersome presidential council to bring the secessionist republics to heel. The council's control over the federal army was also in question. The army’s officers are mainly Serbians, the dominant ethnic group that is most committed to preserving the federation. And its Serbian chief of staff, Gen. Blagoje Adzic, apparently exceeded his authority in sending infantry and armor storming into Slovenia after its declaration of independence on June 25. In the immediate fighting that followed, the Slovenes killed 36 federal soldiers and two police-

men, while three Slovenian militiamen and five civilians died.

Many Slovenes expressed surprise at the initial poor showing of the vaunted Yugoslav army against a numerically inferior and lightly armed foe. Inadequate supplies were one reason for their failure. “I was stunned that they were so poorly organized,” said Danilo Slivnik, a prominent Slovenian journalist. “They just came in tanks, without food and water, and they quickly succumbed to thirst and hunger.” By contrast, the Slovenian militia fighters, defending their relatively prosperous republic and its 1.9 million people, were clearly more highly motivated than the federal soldiers, some of whom are themselves Slovenes and were reluctant to do battle. Indeed, deserters were among about 2,500 federal army prisoners taken by the Slovenes.

But the federal forces sharpened their per-

formance last week, lashing out with a savagery that caused outrage in Ljubljana. As two federal jet fighters swept low over the city to attack a television transmitter on July 2, Katja Skobeme, a 22-year-old translator, shook her fist at the sky and shouted: “They’re fanatics, lunatics, those Serbian generals. They understand nothing of the new Europe that we want to join.”

The fighting died down only when the CSCEbrokered ceasefire took effect two days after the air raid. But then, the federal government in Belgrade issued a seven-point ultimatum to the Slovenes. At first, the secessionists in Ljubljana were defiant. But later, to the sur-

prise of many observers, the Slovenian government agreed to comply with a demand that it begin demobilizing its 68,000-strong territorial defence force. Information Minister Jelko Kacin said on July 5 that the Slovenian force had already sent 10,000 men home.

The Slovenians balked at one demand: they said that they could not meet a Sunday noon deadline to remove their forces from border posts on the Austrian, Italian and Hungarian frontiers. But they did agree to send prisoners who wanted to leave back by train. And they lifted their blockade of federal military installations, which allowed the concerned mothers access to the federal barracks where their sons had been under siege.

The six-bus convoy of mothers had left Belgrade for Slovenia on July 3 after a violent demonstration at the federal parliament. Hundreds of parents stormed the building during a parliamentary session, breaking through a police cordon and smashing glass doors. “Traitors,” shouted one woman. “You have sent our

children to the slaughter.” Cried another: “They are using our boys as meat for Slovenian guns.”

When the bus convoy reached Ljubljana, the Slovenian authorities allowed those parents whose sons had been captured to meet them at a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp in a local sports stadium. Among the POWs were many deserters—Slovenian officials estimated their number at 750. Some of them voiced fears that they would be court-martialled on return to their units.

Some of the deserters told poignant stories. One federal officer, an ethnic Slovene who wished to remain anonymous, told reporters

that he defected after learning that his 19-yearold son had joined the Slovenian militia. “The chance that I could order my soldiers to shoot at my own son was too much for me,” the officer said. Another federal officer, an ethnic Croatian tank commander, said: “I don’t want to fight the Slovenes for Serbian generals. I want to fight for Croatian independence.”

Inter-ethnic tensions in Croatia, meanwhile, erupted in violence. At week’s end, pitched battles intensified between Croats and their traditional enemies, the federally dominant Serbs. Croatian officials claimed that Serbian armed militants known as Chetniks had crossed the Danube River into northeastern Croatia and were deliberately provoking a fight. And some Croats maintained that 70,000 federal troops poised across the river planned to use the ethnic unrest as a pretext to invade the region, which the Serbs have long claimed as their own.

Northeastern Croatia was already on a war footing last week. Roadblocks every few miles

were manned by armed Croatian militiamen and guard units. Entries to most Serbian villages in the region were blocked by digging equipment and other barricades. “Everybody is now psychologically at breaking point,” said Mato Ivancic, an official at the Red Cross centre in the town of Vinkovci, where attendants collected blood from donors in anticipation of casualties. “People are crying,” he added. “They’re snappy and nervous.” Ivancic’s home is in a small Croatian village, Slakovci, that sits beside the Serbian village of Sremse Laze. Children from the two communities went to the same school, and Ivancic said that he taught there for nearly 30 years and does not recall any displays of ethnic hatred. But now, he said, “Barricades keep going up between the villages. Each side accuses the other of putting them up first. These young men at the barricades are my former pupils. They still call me ‘comrade teacher’ and the Serbs let me go through, but I can’t talk sense to either side.” Added Ivancic: “I can’t make them see that it doesn’t matter who put up the barricades first—it matters who takes them down.”

In Washington, Secretary of State James Baker conceded that the United States, lacking leverage with Belgrade, could do little to halt the violence, and warned that Yugoslavia could descend into “a full-fledged civil war.” I Sources inside the state deis partment expressed disap§ pointment at the way that 5 Baker and President George Bush had handled the crisis. They said that the administration had been preoccupied with events in the Persian Gulf and the Soviet Union. And when Bush and Baker did speak out, the critics said, they stressed the need for unity, giving Belgrade the impression that America would condone the use of force.

It was only in the midst of last week’s bloodshed that Bush and Baker shifted emphasis, saying that Slovenia and Croatia should be allowed to decide their future by peaceful means. But that was too late to satisfy their critics. “The United States made a profound mistake,” said Douglas Seay, a scholar with Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation. “I have to assume it was due to incompetence.” But the White House was clearly not alone in having difficulties responding to a secessionist crisis rooted in Yugoslavia’s ageold ethnic hatreds.