Chaos and violence reign Bosnia is now a patchwork of lawless, rival territories

August 21, 1992|By New York Times News Service

BANJA LUKA BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- In the months since Serbian forces began seizing huge swaths of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the territory under their control has become a patchwork of rival Serbian fiefs consumed by lawlessness and economic collapse.

Stark images of violence and near-anarchy can be seen throughout this new self-declared country, which calls itself the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and covers roughly two-thirds of what was once one of the republics of Yugoslavia.

Serbian militiamen, wearing khaki or camouflage uniforms or street clothes along with boots or athletic shoes, can be seen driving freely around this town, sometimes firing into the air. Families have been burned out of their homes and civilians killed in reprisal for the deaths of relatives at the front.

Shortages, a result of economic disruptions caused by the fighting as well as the international embargo against the Serbs, have led to long lines of people from every ethnic group outside bakeries, banks and aid centers.

The people complain of water shutoffs, days with no electricity and fears of enduring these hardships as winter approaches.

"Everyone in the family is out of work," said a Muslim from Celinac, a mostly Serb-populated district about 10 miles from Banja Luka, the largest city in the Serb-held area and a major military center. "Winter is coming, and we have no income. We have to figure out how to keep ourselves warm and fed."

He added that his family had no money for transportation out and nowhere to go. "The garden isn't enough to feed all six of us for the winter," he said. "We can't store enough because there isn't enough electricity for the freezer."

Many Serbian civilians, trying to escape the misery of their lives, have begun voluntarily joining the Muslims and Croats forced out in the Serbs' campaign of "ethnic cleansing." They can be seen aboard columns of buses

that grind over dust-choked roads past bombed mosques, churches, homes and factories.

Muslim Slavs desperately seeking to escape have even risked their lives walking across perilous battlefronts to try to get out of the republic.

Although the Serbian forces have in some senses won their war and now control most of the territory where Serbian populations dominate, the fighting continues as they lay siege to Muslim-held pockets and put pressure on non-Serbs to give up their property and leave.

They are also fighting forces from Croatia that are seeking to seize large parts of the republic.

Nominal control of the government of the new country proclaimed in Bosnia lies in the hands of Radovan Karadzic, a former psychiatrist, who as the president of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina shuttles by helicopter at treetop level from his mountainside headquarters in Pale, just outside Sarajevo, to Belgrade and Banja Luka.

The helicopter, like all of the arms and equipment used by Serbian forces, was provided originally by the Yugoslav army LTC when it abandoned the area in May.

"Bosnia and Herzegovina is like Switzerland 200 years ago," Mr. Karadzic said in a recent interview, alluding to the professed desire of Serbs for "ethnic cantons" in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "Two centuries from now, we'll be as peaceful as Switzerland. Two centuries from now, we'll kiss each other."

A local quip offers the retort: "The difference between Switzerland and Bosnia and Herzegovina is that there are no Swiss in Bosnia and Herzegovina."

The area controlled by Serbs is actually a patchwork of territories under the authority of various independent or semi-independent forces or fiefdoms, and citizens traveling across what was once a unified area now must cross different checkpoints that seem not even to communicate with one another.

Some of these fiefdoms are controlled by well-known warlords who compete for authority with Karadzic.

"We never mixed in politics," said a Muslim who is terrified because his brother's name appeared on a list of people under house arrest. "We are prepared to sign away all of our property just to leave here."

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