WHILE NATO ENDORSES AIR STRIKES, CANADA QUESTIONS THE STRATEGY
TOM FENNELL,IAN MATHER,WILLIAM LOWTHERAugust161993
SARAJEVO ON THE EDGE
WHILE NATO ENDORSES AIR STRIKES, CANADA QUESTIONS THE STRATEGY
Sarajevo is a city on the verge of death. First, the electricity went, then the water supply. Nearly all the trees have been cut down for firewood; soccer fields have been turned into graveyards because the bodies of the estimated 150,000 people who have been killed since Bosnian Serb gunners started shelling the city 16 months ago have overflowed the cemeteries. And last week, the Serbs pounded at the gates as infantrymen captured two critical mountaintops overlooking Sarajevo, all but completing an iron ring around the city and its 380,000 remaining mostly Muslim residents. In response, NATO authorized the possible use of bombing missions to help break the siege, a move that Canada initially resisted. But in Sarajevo’s filthy streets, few people really believed that they will be rescued. “If they wanted to help, they would have done it already,” said homemaker Merima Nisic. “The world treats Muslims like savages.”
The battle-hardened Bosnian Serbs, dug into the steep mountain slopes surrounding Sarajevo, have heard the West threaten to use air power before. And as in the past, this latest round of saber rattling had little immediate effect. Ambassadors attending the fractious meeting of the 16-nation NATO alliance in Brussels agreed to endorse air intervention. But Canadian envoy James Bartleman, fearing for the safety of UN peacekeepers, including 2,300 Canadians, secured restrictions on the use of such force.
With the critical high ground in their grasp, the Bosnian Serbs all but sealed the fate of Sarajevo. They cut off the last remaining supply routes and were able to shell the city at will. Responding to public concerns about the fate of the besieged residents, U.S. President Bill Clinton said it would be impossible for humanitarian aid to reach the city unless air strikes clear the way. And with another winter looming, the President told White House reporters that the United States would not stand by and let the people of Sarajevo slowly starve to death. Said Clinton: “There should be an end to the misery before we go through another winter.”
Despite other grim scenarios, the U.S. proposal ran into stiff opposition in Brussels. According to well-placed sources, Bartleman adamantly opposed the U.S. plan to bomb the Bosnian Serbs because it would leave Canada’s peacekeeping troops open to reprisals. Brian MacDonald, a Toronto-based defence analyst, said that Canadian troops are particularly vulnerable because they are scattered in small groups across Bosnia. In the western Bosnian city of Srebrenica alone, he said, 300 lightly armed Canadian peacekeepers are surrounded by Serbs equipped with heavy weapons. “They would not be able to withstand an attack,” MacDonald added.
Once Canada voiced its objections to the bombing, Britain and France, which together have more than 6,000 peacekeepers in Bosnia, also expressed the same concerns. As a result, according to informed sources, the NATO ambassadors gave the United States the go-ahead to launch bombing raids only after a number of complicated and time-consuming safeguard conditions are met. For one, NATO military command has to draft a bombing strategy which is to be presented to NATO ambassadors this week. As well, NATO still has to determine what acts by the Bosnian Serbs would actually trigger the bombing raids. And, as a result of another effort led by Canada, Britain, and France, it will be the United Nations, not U.S.-led NATO forces, that will decide when the attacks will begin.
As a result, Prime Minister Kim Campbell could claim after the NATO meeting that she supported Clinton, while assuring Canadians that their soldiers would be safe. Said Campbell: “Our representatives worked very hard to reach an agreement to satisfy our concern to protect our people there.”
Meanwhile, the bombing debate may have inadvertently set back the Bosnian peace talks being conducted at the same time, 500 km away, in Geneva. Four days before the United States received the go-ahead to hit the Bosnian Serbs from the air, Bosnia’s president, Alija Izetbegovic, agreed to consider a proposal that would cut Bosnia into three pieces, dividing it among the Serbs, Croats and Muslims—but leaving 70 per cent of it in the hands of the Serbs. But once
the NATO decision against the Serbs was made, he pulled out of the talks, clearly hoping that some future bombing raids would improve his negotiating position. That angered British mediator Lord Owen, who has been trying to reach agreement among the warring factions. “It is odd that we were having all the talk of war in Brussels,” said Owen, “when actually we are getting serious negotiations.”
Late last week, the Bosnian Serbs attempted to defuse the bombing threat altogether. They offered to withdraw from Mount Igman and Mount Bjelasnica in favor of UN peacekeepers. By doing so, the Bosnian Muslims would likely never be able to retake the mountains. As well, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic promised to open overland supply routes into Sarajevo. And Izetbegovic said that if the Bosnian Serb offer proved genuine, his government would return to the negotiating table. But at week’s end, the talks failed and the Bosnian Serb gunners insisted they would stay on the mountaintops until the UN took over.
But even a peace agreement may not save the people of Sarajevo. The Bosnian Serbs are unlikely to modify their strategy of slowly strangling the city by making life there even more unbearable. By doing so, thousands of refugees would be forced to flee. But where they will go remains unclear. Over two million people have already been driven out of their homes in Bosnia and most have relocated in other parts of Europe. Germany alone has absorbed almost 600,000 refugees. But it is unlikely that yet another massive wave of refugees will be accepted. “The doors are shutting in Europe,” said defence analyst MacDonald. For the people of Sarajevo, the enemy may have stopped at the gates of their city, but a long exodus may well lie ahead.
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