Besieged in Sarajevo and Waiting for Hell to Freeze

WILLIAM PFAFF

September 24, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

SARAJEVO. — Agraffito greeting visitors who enter this ruined city says, i English, ''Welcome to Hell.'' The punishment here promises to be, like Hell's, eternal. This siege is never going to end until all the people are killed -- and there are said to be some 350,000 still here -- or until the peace negotiations now being conducted by Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen produce a truce, which is unlikely but conceivable.

The city will never be taken by the Serbs because to do so is beyond the capabilities of their forces and because they have no real need to do so. The partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina they want would leave Sarajevo and certain other cities in Muslim hands. The Serbs and Croatians of Bosnia are mostly peasants, while the Muslims are largely urban.

The point of the siege is to compel the Muslims to agree to partition, which they refuse to do. However, it is happening whether they like it or not. ''Ethnic cleansing'' is producing the result the Serbs and Croats want, in the areas each controls.

The Serbian positions in the mountains around Sarajevo put one in mind of Bill Mauldin's World War II cartoon in which his two ragged infantrymen are standing on the heights overlooking what had been the Allies' Anzio beachhead. Willie says to Joe, ''You mean, they was here, and we was there!''

Sarajevo lies in a narrow basin of the Miljacka river -- ''and presents a picture of remarkable charm,'' the 1964 Baedeker's goes on. It used to. Its valley position lays it entirely open to the heavy mortar and shellfire the besiegers are placing on the city, at relatively little risk to themselves.

The Serbian force is clearly a militia, with many old men and boys, but it is uniformed and well equipped from the stocks of the old Yugoslav National Army. It fights in the conviction that it confronts a jihad the Muslim world has proclaimed to conquer Christian Europe. This it truly believes and it is useless to argue.

The local Serbian leaders -- four tenured university professors; make of that what you will -- claim to head an autonomous Serbian Republic of Bosnia, but they make little pretense that their aim is other than eventually to have their ''republic'' become part of a Greater Serbia.

The existing Serbian government's political police also makes no effort to conceal its presence at the siege headquarters, which is in a ski lodge dating from the 1984 Winter Olympics (called, by the way, ''Paradise Lodge''). Their chosen garb is an all-black overall with a pistol thrust in a leather belt (no holster). It was they who later convoyed the party I was with to Belgrade in a breakneck automobile drive, waving aside ordinary policemen in both Serb-held Bosnia and Serbia itself.

The Bosnian authorities in Sarajevo (and there are 60,000 Serbs still in the city according to the Serb leaders themselves), swear that their people will fight on forever. But this means mainly that they intend to go on absorbing punishment forever.

They will not be conquered because a large modern industrial city of 350,000 people cannot be taken other than by a street-by-street infantry and tank assault, which is entirely beyond the abilities of the Serb militia. The actual resistance of Sarajevo's people consists mainly of getting up each morning, going to whatever work they are doing, doing it, carrying on, finding something to eat, avoiding the snipers, and sleeping fitfully through the nighttime bombardments.

The U.N. military force, the ''protection force'' or UNPROFOR, meanwhile plays a surrealistic role in all this. The soldiers run what amounts to a taxi service of armored personnel carriers for officials and visitors, while attempting to ''observe'' the war on both sides to encourage the combatants to respect restrictions agreed to at the London conference earlier this month.

This means that U.N. officers sit on both sides of the line to see that each side fires from declared heavy weapons only in retaliation for firing from the other side. This is a largely useless exercise since both sides fire as seems useful to them (including on U.N. convoys, aircraft and headquarters), and usually from sites and with weapons they have not submitted to U.N. #F observation. The U.N. force is also now supposed to open and protect land routes by which supply convoys can deliver the food and medicines to enable the city's population to go on resisting the siege.

The military have new rules of engagement which say that they can now shoot back at the people who shoot at them, but these go on to say that fire can only be returned equivalent to that delivered against the U.N. soldiers. Thus, when U.N. armored vehicles are fired on by snipers, as they regularly are, including the one in which I entered the city, the crew is authorized to return rifle fire, which obviously they do not attempt to do, but they are not free to give the sniper a burst from the 20-millimeter cannon or heavy machine guns they carry, which might actually put a stop to these attacks.

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