Canada NOTES


December 12 1994
Canada NOTES


December 12 1994





It is symptomatic of the world’s confused, hesitant and hypocritical response to the shame of Bosnia that it cannot even call a hostage a hostage—the kidnappers might take offence. Instead, the more than 400 UN soldiers, including 55 Canadians, who were captives of the Bosnian Serb army last week were described as peacekeepers whose “movements are severely restricted.” Or they were “detainees.” The Bosnian Serbs had a name for them, too. “They used to smile and say that they were looking forward to having us as ‘guests,’ ” said Allan Seward, an RCMP officer serving with the United Nations in Bosnia.

They were, in fact, hostages. Prisoners of war, held in reprisal for three feeble NATO air strikes at the Bosnian Serb army, which had defied the United Nations’ line in the sand by blasting its way into the designated “safe” area around the town of Bihac in northwestern Bosnia. As if that was not enough, Bosnian Serb soldiers slipped into neighboring Croatia last week and, in a commando-style raid, kidnapped seven Ukrainian peacekeepers from their observation post and marched them back into Serbianheld territory in Bosnia. A day later, Serbian fighters fired three missiles at the headquarters of the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, shortly before UN special envoy Yasushi Akashi arrived for talks aimed at ending the harassment of peacekeeping troops. At week’s end, it remained uncertain whether the Serbs would deliver on their promise to release their hostages. It appeared they were not merely thumbing their noses at the United Nations; they seemed determined to inflict humiliation.

The 39,173 members of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) are getting used to the feeling. The smell of retreat is in the air and, if the choppers are not yet on the roof of UNPROFOR headquarters in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, the drone of whirring blades is not far off. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali admitted as much last week. Concluding a disastrous visit to Sarajevo—during which he was jeered by angry Sarajevans and snubbed by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic—the embattled Egyptian diplomat warned that, unless the warring factions agreed to cooperate, “it will become impossible to persuade the Security Council to keep UNPROFOR here.”

Many would not mourn their departure. The United Nations has become everybody’s favorite whipping boy in this debacle, quite an achievement in an affair where more energy is spent apportioning blame than formulating policy. To U.S.

Senator Bob Dole and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the peacekeepers are simply in the way. Get the UN troops out and NATO could bomb the Serbs with impunity, they argue. To Bosnia’s Muslim-led government, which also wants NATO to unleash its power on the Serbs, the blue berets are useless bystanders who have failed to deliver them from their enemy. For the increasingly testy Croatian government, the presence of peacekeepers is turning the ceasefire lines % from their 1991 war with Serbia into perma° nent borders, something they say is unacs: ceptable. And to Bosnia’s Serbs, the NATO f air attack proved what they believed all g along: the United Nations was a front for a § Western operation aimed at shoring up the Bosnian government.

But the United Nations makes a convenient target. “Everybody is =? playing the United Nations for a patsy,” said one Canadian official. | “But the problem is no one has ever known what to do about Bosnia, 2

so we just threw the United Nations at the problem.” Indeed, the confused handling of the Bosnian crisis is a result of the world’s failure to agree on what the war is about. Is it a civil war between ancient enemies, as European governments still maintain? Or is the partitioning of Bosnia an act of aggression by militaristic thugs—Bosnia’s Serbs—aided and abetted by Serbia itself?

Unable to agree but anxious to satisfy the inevitable cries that “something must be done,” the Security Council settled for the soft option of peacekeepers. The United Nations was to maintain designated “safe zones” and negotiate and supervise ceasefires, while delivering humanitarian aid to more than three million hungry and frightened civilians. “In order to do that, there is one principle that thou shall not violate, and that is impartiality,” Canadian Maj.-Gen. Ray Crabbe, UNPROFOR’s deputy force commander, told Maclean’s last week in his Zagreb headquarters. “Once you become partial to the conflict, you might as well go home—because it is impossible to execute peacekeeping functions. If you have a massive bombing campaign, you are siding with one of the parties. Once you cross that line you can’t step back.”

Crabbe’s assessment underscores just how close the United Nations has come to quitting Bosnia. It has been placed in an almost impossible position: resented by all sides in the con-

flict, and criticized by U.S. politicians for refusing to respond militarily—even though it is not equipped for heavy fighting. Indeed, many critics argue—and Crabbe acknowledges they may be right—that the so-called humanitarian aid may be prolonging the war. All sides steal from the convoys that move through their areas. With the rest of the world feeding their civilian populations, the warring parties are free to concentrate on military matters. And the 44,136 relatively well-paid UN personnel represent a tremendous boost to the local economies. Zagreb, in particular, is booming thanks to the UN presence.

But the mission seems to be at its nadir. It is now wrestling with its own corruption problems, and has set up a special investigative unit to examine strong evidence that some UNPROFOR battalions have sold fuel and ammunition to the warring factions. UN police officers, who serve under the banner of CIVPOL, told Maclean’s that such practices are common, and cannot be stopped because offenders are simply turned over to their own commanders—many of whom wink at the practice.

The United Nations is in disarray in Bosnia. For several days last week, aid convoys ground to a halt—the Serbs would not let them pass. Many of UNPROFOR’s soldiers admit that they have lost faith in the mission. Once, it was UN cars that were being stolen at will by the factions. Now, peacekeepers themselves are being hijacked. The official count of hostages last week did not even include several CIVPOL officers who were being refused permission to leave their sectors. Four

RCMP officers were among those being held. As a result, they were unable to accompany 39 colleagues on their return to Canada on the weekend. Amid the chaos, some CIVPOL officers fled their stations to seek safety with armed UN battalions. One Russian battalion refused pleas for safety and food from fellow UN officers. Sneered one Canadian UNPROFOR official after returning to Zagreb from a UN sector near Bihac: “Lester B. Pearson must be spinning in his grave.”

It is fitting that it was at Bihac that the UN mission to the former Yugoslavia collapsed into chaos. Like Srebrenica and Gorazde before it, Bihac is another of those once anonymous Balkan towns now emblazoned on the world’s conscience. But the recent history of Bihac has a surreal quality all its own. Nothing better illustrates the absurdity and confusion of the conflict.

For a time until this summer, Bihac was a peaceful and prosperous oasis. It was one of six UN safe areas in Bosnia, but it was also the personal fiefdom of Fikret Abdic, a Muslim businessman. People in the Bihac area called him Babo, or father.

“Abdic built a lot of factories and gave people work,” said Danka Uzelac, who used to work as a translator for Abdic’s wife. It did not matter that the red-haired, sad-eyed Uzelac is a Croat; nor that her husband is a Serb. “People did not have to think about nationality to do business,” she said. “Abdic is a businessman, and for that he needed to trade, not destroy. So he made good relations with Serbs and Croats in Bihac.”

For that, Abdic attracted the enmity of the Muslim-led Bosnian government in Sarajevo. Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic was furious that Abdic had chosen to trade with, rather than kill, Serbs. He called Abdic and

his followers “rebel Muslims,” and ordered his army’s V Corps to overthrow the businessman. The breakup of Yugoslavia had seen every permutation of Serb-Croat-Muslim violence, but this was a new twist: Muslim against Muslim. By the middle of August, V Corps had prevailed. Izetbegovic’s men drove out Abdic and about 40,000 of his support-

ers—including Uzelac, her husband and three sons—from their homes. Uzelac says Abdic’s Muslim followers feared “the Islamic extremists in V Corps,” which includes a smattering of Islamic fundamentalist mercenaries from, among other places, Sudan.

The refugees fled north and west of Bihac, creating two refugee camps in the so-called zone of separation. The zone is a two-kilometrewide buffer between Croatia and the selfstyled Krajina republic, a swath of predominantly Serbian territory taken from Croatia in the 1991 Serb-Croat war. One of the camps, Turanj, is a nasty, inhospitable stretch of gutted buildings, vacant since that war. Since August, it has been home to more than 20,000 people. It has no electricity and relies on daily shipments of food. Roads into Croatia are barricaded by razor wire and armed soldiers, while fields on either side are laced with land mines. Only the wealthy can escape by buying their freedom: the going price, $2,700. “ft is like the Second World War here,” said Uzelac.

“This is a concentration camp.” The area bristles with tension. Croatia is still demanding Krajina’s return, and there were clashes all along the UN-patrolled contact line last week. On a single day, UN observers reported 132 ceasefire violations. If the region explodes into full-scale war again, it will be a vicious fight. UN observers in Krajina say that the Serbs are well armed, possessing not only surface-to-air missiles but also long-range rockets, which could easily strike Zagreb, 110 km to the north. “There is an AK-47 in every home,” said Bill Roberts, a Mountie who has just finished a six-month tour with CIVPOL.

s And the Krajina Serbs are I willing to fight. They have

1 played an instrumental role in

2 the Bosnian Serb assault on ^ Bihac, hitting the Muslim V

Corps from the west while the Bosnian Serbs attacked from the east. In other words, the attack on Bihac came from a coalition of Bosnian and Krajina Serbs—some of them fighting from land that the world still recognizes as Croatia—aligned with Muslim recruits who were unhappy with their Sarajevo-based leaders. Little wonder that UN commanders did not authorize air strikes over Bihac. Who would they have bombed?

The peacekeepers, who arrived in the Balkans two years ago with airy optimism and a willingness to perform good deeds, have instead become the targets of resentment from a population locked in a war that refuses to end. Almost to a person, the Canadian Mounties who served in CIVPOL in the sectors surrounding Bihac say that UNPROFOR is not working. “I am not accustomed to being spat at,” said Allan Seward, who normally serves with an RCMP detachment in Cole Harbour, N.S. “If you do that to me at home, you’ve got a problem. But here, we had no authority.”

The CIVPOL officers came to the Balkans expecting to patrol alongside Croatian and Serbian militias to ensure the rights of all parties were protected. They quickly learned their task was

not a normal police operation. They would investigate a murder, but discover later that their findings had been ignored. They would arrest armed Croatian police who were trying to infiltrate the Turanj camp—only to see the perpetrators released by Croatian superiors. They attempted to stop ethnic expulsions, but their only weapon was the power of persuasion. When refugees began pouring in from Bihac, suddenly they were handing out blankets and delivering food to angry, frustrated people who were anything but grateful.

On Oct 1, that frustration erupted in a riot in the Turanj camp. UN personnel had come to the camp to deliver a pamphlet from Izetbegovic, which “forgave” the refugees for their loyalty to Abdic. “There was nothing to forgive,” said Danka Uzelac. Tempers flared, knives and axes appeared, and CIVPOL had to be called in to rescue the endangered UN workers. ‘We were totally at their mercy,” Seward recalled last week. There was no way we could use force to get ourselves out.”

The atmosphere deteriorated over the following weeks. After NATO jets bombed Serbian targets, the Mounties were among those who paid the price. In the town of Plaski near the Bihac pocket, CIVPOL Commander Roberts and his staff were confined to their station for three days.

“I was a POW,” said Roberts as he prepared to fly home to Ottawa last week. “I lay on the floor at night thinking that I might never see my kids again.” Roberts eventually led his staff to the relative safety of the Polish battalion’s camp. The Serbs then moved in and stole the station’s generator, office equipment and maps. “The Serbs were nice to us when times were fine,” said Roberts. “But I had no doubt that if the order came down to kill us, they would have. They were kamikazes, and they had no respect for us.”

Perhaps, away from the spotlight on the Bihac enclave, the United Nations is still doing some good in Bosnia. “The humanitarian in me says that we are still feeding three million people,” a frustrated Maj.-Gen. Crabbe said last week. As for the politicians who have put their soldiers, police and civilians in the former Yugoslavia in the name of the United Nations, they have paid little heed to the risks—until the possibility that large numbers of bodies would come home in bags turned Bosnia into a domestic political problem.

But the world is going to have to drastically lower its expectations of what the United Nations can do. It is not equipped to make peace. And there is no sign of a permanent peace or even a ceasefire in Bosnia. As UNPROFOR struggled to get negotiations under way again last week, the people with the guns were not finished fighting. On the contrary, the Serbs were busing in teenage boys and girls from the Turanj camp to help at the battlefront. About 3,000 adult male refugees had already left to take up arms against the Muslim V Corps. “They got tired of waiting here doing nothing,” said Uzelac. “They have gone to liberate their homes.” And a Serbian military liaison officer had a message last week for the people in the Turanj camp who had been driven from Bihac by the Bosnian army. “You’ll be home by the end of the month,” he promised. □