Smelling Victory


May 31 1993

Smelling Victory


May 31 1993

Smelling Victory



At No. 23 Banja Lucka St., the rose bushes are carefully pruned and the lilac trees are in full bloom. Life could be sweet but for the inconvenient fact that the house is barely 150 metres from the front line of a bitter civil war. Banja Lucka runs through a Serbian section of Sarajevo called Vraca, and most of its pleasant two-storey, detached houses are within easy target range of the mainly-


Andrew Phillips in BOSNIA Muslim fighters on the other side. Boro Konstantinovic, the proud owner of No. 23, limps through his garden with the help of a cane. On April 4, a sniper’s bullets struck him in the left leg and right arm. Konstantinovic is an official of the Bosnian Serb government and was in uniform when he was shot. But he shrugs off any suggestion that he represents an aggressor force besieging Sarajevo. “It’s hard to be called that,” he says. “How can I be an aggressor against my own garden?”

Aggressors or not, the Serbs of Bosnia displayed a self-confidence bordering on arro-

gance last week as they definitively rejected the United Nations-backed peace plan devised by American Cyrus Vance and Britain’s Lord Owen. At a mountain resort with the unlikely name of Heavenly Valley, Serbian leaders announced the unsurprising result of their referendum on the plan: an overwhelming 96 per cent against. The scheme would divide Bosnia into 10 ethnically-defined cantons, and require the Serbs to return much of the land they now rule to Muslim or Croatian control. But from the leafy gardens of Vraca to tiny hamlets in the surrounding mountains, the Serbs made it plain that they intend to keep what they hold. With the international community more reluctant than ever to use military muscle to force them back, the Serbs came close to declaring victory in Bosnia’s 13-month-old civil war. They are ready to talk peace, they said, but only on their own terms.

The Bosnian Serbs’ new cockiness stems from much more than the traditional stubbornness that has led them to hurl defiance at every threat of Western military intervention. It comes from knowing that they are dealing from strength: their soldiers control 70 per cent of Bosnia-Herzegovina; their Muslim and Croat opponents are busy killing each other in the south. And the outside world appears finally to have lost its appetite for challenging their gains. Although U.S. warplanes routinely roar through the skies above Sarajevo, enforcing the UN no-fly zone over Bosnia, that is likely as far as American involvement will go. In the wake of the Serbs’ thumbs-down to the Vance-Owen proposals, international diplomacy shifted last week to proposing ways to merely contain the conflict by stationing UN monitors on the borders of Bosnia, rather than rolling back Serbian

gains. In itself, that would amount to a victory for the Bosnian Serbs—and they were making little effort to disguise their satisfaction. “Right now we hold the most important cards,” said Slavisa Rakovic, chief aide to the Bosnian Serbs’ leader, Radovan Karadzic.

In fact, Karadzic’s self-proclaimed Srpska (Serbian) Republic already exercises control over most of Bosnia. It issues its own money and postage stamps, publishes a daily newspaper called Glas (Voice) and three dozen local weeklies and has its own national anthem, the traditional royalist Serbian song God of Justice. The government operates a TV network with stations in Pale, near Sarajevo, and Banja Lucka to the north (a recent movie offering was, appropriately enough. Dressed to Kill). Its parliament, composed of the 82 Serbian members of the old multiethnic Bosnian assembly, held its 32nd meeting last week to hear the official results of the referendum. Srpska has 18 ministries located in a converted diesel engine factory in Pale, a onetime ski resort in the mountains above Sarajevo. So far, at least, they are a model of lean government: the entire Srpska civil service consists of only 180 people. Karadzic is fond of pointing out that his republic has more effective authority than the internationally recognized government of Bosnia, which has been reduced to ruling little more than a series of mainly Muslim enclaves. “The republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina is recognized but doesn’t exist,” he says. “Srpska exists, but is not recognized.”

Srpska’s shape, a great horseshoe of land bending around Muslimand Croat-held territory in central and southern Bosnia, makes communications extremely difficult. Telephone lines have been restored, but land transport must often go through narrow corridors vulnerable to attack. Even travelling the 12 km from Pale to Konstantinovic’s idyllic garden in the southern outskirts of Sarajevo means taking a tortuous route past gun emplacements and bunkers constructed out of logs and bits of corrugated iron, which overlook the city.

The people of Vraca and Grbavica, the Serbian-held suburbs of Sarajevo, have adjusted to life on the edge. While the world’s attention has focused on the plight of the 300,000 besieged people on the other side of the battle lines, life is difficult and dangerous on the Serbian side as well. The Muslim gunners a few hundred metres away do not have the kind of heavy artillery that Serbian forces have used with such devastating effect on other parts of Sarajevo. But in Vraca, almost every house and apartment building is pockmarked with bullet holes, and local people have become accustomed to zigzagging between buildings to avoid being exposed to sniper fire. The Bosnian army does have mortars, which can lob deadly shells into any street or alley. Two Serbian soldiers and two children died in a mortar attack one day last week in Grbavica.

In defence, the Serbs have built walls of red cinder blocks to cover the gaps between houses and cut off snipers’ sight lines. One of the walls bears evidence that even war cannot stamp out neighborhood pride: someone has decorated it with jars holding sprigs of lilac. Half the prewar population of 20,000 has fled to safety, but those who have

On the brink of war, the world blinked. endured the past year vow to remain.

Konstantinovic is a fifth-generation Sarajevan who says he cannot imagine how the outside world got the idea that Serbs are the aggressors in their own country. He says that Serbs, Muslims and Croats got along fine for decades; the problem started with an influx of new Muslim settlers from the southern Serbian region of Sandjak over the past 10 years, which made Serbs feel threatened in their own home town where Muslims were the biggest group. Now, he says, mistrust runs so deep that Serbs will never accept any peace plan that involves giving up their new republic. “For 500 years we lived in someone else’s state,” he said. “We’ve been second-class citizens in our own country, but now we have the chance to have our own state. We won’t let it go.” For him, the motivation for fighting is clear-cut. Asked to show a visitor where the front line is, he remarked, “For me it is both the front line and the last line, because it’s my house.”

Thousands of other Serbs who fled Sarajevo and other Muslim-controlled areas provide a constant reminder that the war’s victims come from all ethnic groups. The ski chalets and weekend homes in the mountains around the city that once held 415,000 people are full of Serbs who say that they were forced to leave because of discrimination, violence or just a pervasive climate of fear. Milka Vidovic, a 51-year-old accountant, spent 45 years in Sarajevo and endured the first few months of the war there before finally getting out on a Red Cross bus last Nov. 15. She went to stay with her daughter and son-in-law in Pale, and now laments the end of the tolerance of prewar Sarajevo. “It was good, for such a mixed-up place,” she said in her new home, a modest two-storey house. “The Communist system suppressed national differences. Then it just exploded. God knows why.”

Vidovic says that she felt obliged to leave because Muslims came to regard all Serbs as “Chetniks,” or extreme nationalists. But like virtually everyone from the city, she still speaks fondly of Muslim friends and neighbors. She says that she misses her close friend Sabira. ‘There’s been no news since November, I’m really worried sick about her.” And her second daughter, Vidovic says later, is married to a Muslim. “The worst of it is that I was never a nationalist,” she adds. “I just thought of myself as a Yugoslav, not a Serb. They forced me to be a nationalist. That makes me really angry.” Like almost everyone in Bosnia, Vidovic looks a decade

older than her age. Aside from fighting, the national pastimes appear to be smoking, drinking and worrying—and the toll is evident in the deep lines on every face.

Last week’s referendum was, not surprisingly, a deeply flawed exercise. Bosnia’s Serbs, driven together by tribal instincts and a near-paranoid sense that the world is conspiring against them, were in no mood for a free and open discussion. Muslims and Croats had either fled to safer areas or had the good sense to go along with the majority. But even a rigorously-conducted vote would most likely have registered resounding opposition to the Vance-Owen plan. The shock of war has pushed even those who once regarded themselves as openminded to stick to their own group. In Pale, an electrical engineer from Sarajevo named Milorad Zivkovic was one of the few who would even express sympathy for Muslims who have been forced to flee their homes during waves of so-called ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia. “Of course it’s horrible to see Muslims’ houses destroyed as well as Serbian houses,” he said. “But the only way out for Serbs was to accept the war. The only other choice was to live under a Muslim government.”

In other parts of Srpska, evidence that Serbs have no intention of letting Muslims

and others ever reclaim their homes is over-

whelming. Along with ethnic cleansing has come linguistic cleansing: the very word “Bosnia” has come to be seen as a symbol of Turkish and Austro-Hungarian oppression and is being eliminated from a dozen place-

names like that of the former city of Bosanski Brod. Other names associated with five centuries of Turkish (and thus Muslim) domination of the region are being

swept away. The town of Donji Vakuf has been renamed Serbobran, while Skender Vakuf is now Knezevo. The man in charge of the linguistic purge, Radoslav Unkovic, director of the Bosnian Serbs’ institute for the protection of cultural heritage, says that the reason is to eliminate “names which are associated with evil.”

Renaming can accompany more sinister

changes. The town of Novo Rasaba, a Turkish phrase meaning New Settlement, is being given a Serbian name that translates as New Serbian Settlement. But for now, it is home to no one. For two kilometres along the road, every house stands empty. Most are burned out, a few were still smoking last week. In mid-April, according to the handful of Serbian soldiers stationed there, Novo Kasaba’s Muslim population of several hundred “ran away” when Serbian troops took it over. Now, the Serbian symbol, a cross with four Cyrillic S’s standing for the slogan “Only Unity Can Save the Serbs,” is daubed on almost every building. The houses, a Serbian soldier explained with a straight face, were burned by the Muslim homeowners themselves, or by Muslim fighters who come from the nearby protected enclave of Srebrenica, where 150 Canadian peacekeepers of the Royal 22nd Regiment (the Van Doo) are stationed to ensure that the same fate does not befall that town.

Other Canadian troops must travel through the countryside near Novo Kasaba to supply the Van Doo peacekeepers in Srebrenica with food and equipment. On their resupply trip last week, they got a firsthand taste of how strong the hatred for Muslims now runs among Serbs. The Canadian convoy of a dozen trucks was delayed at a Serbian checkpoint for four hours by soldiers whose suspicions were aroused by the presence of three Muslim translators. The Serbs eventually let the convoy pass, but turned the translators back. On

their return trip the next day, the Canadians were delayed again—partly because they had difficulty communicating with the Serbs. “You should have brought a translator,” one Serbian soldier told Capt. Alain Gauthier, the Quebec City native who was leading the convoy. “We brought them yesterday, but you wouldn’t let them through,” Gauthier replied patiently. “Yes, but they were Muslims,” complained the Serb. “Well, we don’t make a distinction among ethnic groups,” Gauthier said. That was evidently a novel concept to the Serbian soldier, who loudly complained to his commander when the convoy finally left: “Why should we let them go? They had those damn Turks with them.”

For the moment, the Bosnian Serbs’ strategy appears to be simple: do nothing. They hold all the territory they want, and they are content to sit back and watch Muslims and Croats fight it out around Mostar, the capital of Herzegovina. The Croats’

offensive there is taking publicity, and thus political pressure, away from the Serbs. And it sets the stage for an eventual settlement between Karadzic’s Srpska republic and the parallel Croatian Bosnian state. The Muslims, squeezed in between and with no outside help, are already the war’s biggest losers.

Last week, as the Serbian parliament met in Heavenly Valley, Karadzic made it clear that he foresees a deal among the three national groups to create a new confederation conforming to the territorial gains that his forces now hold. And the West appeared ready to do little more than keep the fire from spreading beyond the boundaries of Bosnia. The Serbs may have stopped short of declaring victory last week. But the outside world seemed prepared to concede.