The bloody war in the Balkans is far from over

Georgie Anne Geyer

October 02, 1992|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Zagreb, Croatia -- HERE, on the front lines of Europe's mos horrendous war since 1945, it would be gratifying to think that the slow peace efforts of the West were finally bearing fruit. The terrible truth is that the war is growing unspeakably worse.

Winter is about to close in on high mountainous cities such as the brutally besieged Sarajevo. Indeed, snows began falling in the high mountains more than two weeks ago. Once the Sarajevo airport is closed by fog in mid-October, it will not open until April, with winter as well as the gunmen moving in on the starving and freezing Sarajevo, gripped also by epidemics. Three million persons in Bosnia-Herzegovina now stand possibly to die of starvation and exposure alone.

"It will be a disaster," Gen. Slobodan Praljak, vice defense minister of Croatia, told me soberly. "It is a wonder or a miracle that these people have survived so far."

But the Serb gunmen perched high in the mountain peaks around Sarajevo are able to prepare for winter. Supplied by Belgrade and allowed by the West to continue their wanton artillery assault on the city below, they are building winterized houses and cutting the trees so they can shoot at the helpless city more accurately this winter.

Since the West was willing to back the United Nations in slow and increasingly frustrated attempts to neutralize the conflict, while it was unwilling militarily to remove the gunmen, the maps of Croatia and Bosnia have been reshuffled.

U.N. forces (14,000 men at this moment) have carved out four "sectors," where some relative but always tense peace reigns. Their courage has been of the type that modern minstrels should sing about. Yet, despite the U.N.'s "no-fly zone," Serbs have upped their bombing missions against Croatians and Bosnians in the last 25 days -- almost exactly the period since the London conference met to try to stop the war.

Indeed, the excellent U.N. team here has to fight daily just to keep going in this insane asylum of "nations." As Cedric Thornberry, the top U.N. political adviser, told me one evening sitting in his Spartan U.N. office here:

"Nobody has seen anything like this before. Even some of our hardened field people haven't been able to handle it; the atmosphere of just-concealed violence, the threat, the menace, the extraordinary reluctance . . . of participants to do what they promised to do.

"The degree of hatred and fear that exists on both sides is very dramatic, and it is more than I have seen even in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Lebanon or the Arab-Israeli conflict."

But even as the Bosnians -- and, in particular, the Bosnian Muslims -- stand to suffer more this winter, there are sober and substantial indications that fate is also turning against the Serbs and their gunmen.

The new 70,000-man Croatian army, swiftly thrown together over the last year, has been remarkably effective and now holds roughly one-third of western Bosnia. Moreover, the increasingly uncontrolled behavior predicted of the Serbs this fall suggests that the radical killers in the mountains (the "wild Serbs") have seen the moderates strengthening their position in Belgrade (where Yugoslav-Federation Prime Minister Milan Panic, American-born and moderate, is gaining).

Milos Vasic, the editor of the prominent Belgrade magazine Vreme, or the equivalent of our Time, also tells me that the Serb gunmen, who until now had bottomless supplies of arms and ammunition, may well run out of both this winter.

"Militarily speaking, the situation in Bosnia is not so good for Serbs as it seems, and their morale is not so high as they claim." Ethnic cleansing is politically backfiring on them. The Bosnian people are reduced to fighting or dying. On the Bosnian side, new leaders are spontaneously developing on the field -- and those are always the best leaders."

Nor is Belgrade, the mother of these dark conflicts, exempt from their effects. There, everyone predicts a long and difficult winter. Gas lines already snake around streets for five miles, and "drivers" sometimes wait in their cars for gas for three to five days. In the absence of gas and oil created by Western sanctions, Belgrade residents have been warned that they must keep their homes down to 60 degrees this winter.

There is also a real chance, Belgrade analysts told me, that Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian president who started this whole conflict, will, if the situation gets too bad, opt for the "totalitarian option." That is, he would assume even more dictatorial powers than he now has -- and he could be helped by the local leaders of the gunmen, such as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and others. Indeed, in only the last two weeks, these men have been threatening to march on Belgrade and "settle accounts with the traitors of Serbia," by which they mean the opposition to Milosevic.

The conflict, then, is far from over. Meanwhile, what is strangest about it is that the West sees and analyzes it all correctly. It cannot claim, this time, that it doesn't know what is happening; it just chooses to do nothing.

Georgie Anne Geyer writes a syndicated column on foreign affairs.

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