WORLD

CALLING THE SHOTS

Bosnian Serbs free Canadian soldiers but keep control

December 19 1994
WORLD

CALLING THE SHOTS

Bosnian Serbs free Canadian soldiers but keep control

December 19 1994

CALLING THE SHOTS

Bosnian Serbs free Canadian soldiers but keep control

WORLD

ASSIGNMENT

BRUCE WALLACE IN ZAGREB

There seems to be only one thing that scares a Bosnian Serb these days. "We call it 'mouse fever,' because it seems to be carried by the mice living in garbage dumps," says Lyle Pleasants, an RCMP officer who just concluded a six-month

tour with the UN’s civilian police force in the encircled Muslim enclave of Gorazde. “If you catch it, your kidneys fail and you’re gone within a couple of days,” says the broad-shouldered Edmonton policeman. “If you want to get through a Serb checkpoint, just tell them you’re carrying a passenger with mouse fever. They won’t even search the vehicle. It’s just: ‘No problem,’ and they wave you through.”

It is said that elephants fear only mice and, in Bosnia, the Serbs are undisputed leviathans of the ethnic jungle. In their showdown with the world’s great powers this fall, the world blinked. Unable to force the Bosnian Serbs to stop their assault on the onetime “safe haven” of Bihac, unable to muster more than pitiful pleas for peace, world leaders came to the conclusion last week that the Bosnian Serbs cannot be ejected from the lands they hold. There will likely be no more NATO bombing runs. “That is the very strong signal coming from the world body,” says Col. Jean Trepanier, the Canadian who is in charge of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) Land Operations based in Zagreb, Croatia. “It may not be fair, but it is a fact of life.”

On the ground, where it counts, the Bosnian Serbs call the shots. Witness their disdainful treatment of UN soldiers, including 55 Canadians, held as hostages to deter NATO air attacks on Serb positions. The Canadians were finally released last week, many of them going right back to work manning checkpoints behind Serb lines. But more than 300 peacekeepers remained hostage, and UN commanders admitted that their troops could be taken and held at Serbian will.

anwhile, the Bosnian Serbs and their allies in the Krajina region, a b-occupied swath of Croatia, primed surface-to-air missiles to shoot m NATO patrol planes.

fith the situation becoming evermore dangerous, UNPROFOR commans had little option but to step up preparations and plans for a withdrawal iieir 23,000 peacekeepers. The United States indicated its willingness to unit 25,000 ground troops to protect UN soldiers, who may be forced to it their way out of Bosnia. Retreat was about all that the allies were doin concert last week. The 52-nation Conference on Security and Co-opdon in Europe, meeting in the Hungarian capital of Budapest, could not n agree on wording to appeal for a ceasefire in Bosnia. And the impasse tinued to drive a wedge between the United States and its NATO part-

But as long as peacekeepers remained hostages, UNPROFOR commanders sweated over the possibility of confrontations between the Bosnian Serbs and NATO. On the one hand, the emboldened Bosnian Serbs were vowing to shoot down NATO planes using surface-to-air missiles. On the other, NATO’s rules of engagement require pilots to take out any missile batteries that electronically “lock on” to their aircraft.

ners. Declaring that Bosnian policy was at “a total dead end,” France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppé criticized the Clinton administration by slamming governments that “teach us lessons daily and have not lifted a little finger to even put one man on the ground.”

Its NATO backing revealed to be all lip and no muscle, UNPROFOR began to make policy on

the run. Western diplomats said that, for the first time, the United Nations was refusing to provide humanitarian aid to Serb-held areas unless convoys were allowed to pass into Muslim towns first. That breaks from the traditional UN practice of unconditionally feeding everyone in need, regardless of political allegiance. The quid pro quo tactic worked: the Serbs finally allowed a desperately needed convoy into Srebrenica, a safe haven protecting mainly Muslims in eastern Bosnia, and the beleaguered battalion of 500 Bangladesh peacekeepers in Bihac were also resupplied.

UN officials worried that such an exchange could occur even by accident, resulting in hostages being killed in reprisal. So desperate was UNPROFOR to avert such a confrontation that when a British patrol came

under attack near Gorazde one day last week, the soldiers chose not to call for NATO air support to help them escape.

But although the Bosnian army was on its heels in Bi-

Indeed, there was broad acceptance that, although the siege may be long, a Serb victory in Bihac is unavoidable. The enclave is almost surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped assault force, and the Serbs appear content to keep squeezing the pocket until it surrenders. Their aim, said UN military commanders, was simply to disarm and neutralize the Bosnian government’s once-vaunted V Corps based there. Few observers believed that the Serbs were prepared to try to take the city, street by bloody street. ‘They have refrained from going in there and having atrocities against women and children shown on American television every night,” said Trépanier. They have even left a way out for the V Corps soldiers to escape— provided they leave their weapons behind.

hac, the fighting in the rest of the country may still have a long way to run. “The Bosnian government army is very much alive,” says Maj.-Gen. Ray Crabbe, the Canadian who is UNPROFOR’s deputy force commander. “They are constantly hitting, probing and jabbing along the confrontation line, forcing the Bosnian Serbs to redeploy troops all the time and to use up crucial fuel supplies.” UNPROFOR officers also acknowledge that they are extremely worried about the prospects of Croatia re-entering the fighting to try to regain territory lost to the Bosnian Serbs in the 1991 Serb-Croat war. The Croatian government continues to insist that if it does not get conquered lands back through negotiation, it will try to retake them by force. Indeed, UNPROFOR spokesmen said that Croatian troops were fighting alongside the Muslims in central Bosnia last week. And in Serb-occupied parts of Croatia, both sides had moved troops and heavy weapons right up to the line of confrontation.

But whether Croatia can convince its citizens to back another war remains to be seen. The country is enjoying the fruits of peace—international financial credits and a prospering investment climate—which would be swapped for pariah status if it resumed its war with Serbia. UN-

PROFOR’s Trépanier says that the first signs of war fatigue are emerging on all sides: even Serb soldiers are now deserting in greater numbers. “Everyone says that they are tired of the fighting and just want to go home,” adds the RCMP’s Pleasants. “Then again, the Muslims in Gorazde still say that they must have their villages back, and that they will fight to the death if they have to.” No one wants more war; they just want peace on their terms.

So there may be some fight left in the Bosnian government. When their appeal to the international community for military assistance was rejected in Budapest, the Bosnians turned to Islamic countries for help. A gathering of the 51-nation Islamic Conference Organization in Geneva produced a pledge to replace UNPROFOR troops with Muslim soldiers should the United Nations withdraw. The prospect of Muslim soldiers fighting on a European battlefield sends shivers down the spines of most European governments, and would sting the Serbs—whose fear of ‘Turkish” encroachment is almost pathological—into even greater fury.

Worried about the damage to the credibility of the United Nations and NATO, allied leaders are clearly ready to bend to the will of the Bosnian Serbs. They are hoping that the Bosnian army’s disaster at Bihac will force the Bosnian government to acquiesce to Serb demands for more territory, and that new borders will slake the enemy’s thirst. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic indicated last week that he might join peace talks, now that the international community has shown a willingness for “new interpretations.”

To the Bosnian government, the West’s shifting policy in dealing with the Serbs amounts to betrayal. “The Bosnians were sincerely convinced that UNPROFOR was here to defend them,” says Trépanier. “It may take a week, or two, or three, or a month,” he says, but the Bosnians will eventually wake up one day and see that they are on their own, and their military situation is dire. “The West will not fight for Bosnia,” added one Western diplomat last week. “This is their fight, and the sad fact is that one party is stronger than the other, and is going to get its way. That, unfortunately, is the way of the world.” □