The Inversion of Reality in Yugoslavia, the West


November 16, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- It is the beginning of the end for Sarajevo, and probably the better for it. The Western world has found the city's sufferings an embarrassment. Nothing will be done for those who remain there, or for the principle of a secular and democratic, non-ethnic republic, which is what the defense of Sarajevo has been all about.

Now the women and children are leaving. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations will not officially help the evacuation, because that would imply complicity in the ''ethnic cleansing'' of Sarajevo. The position of the international organizations has been to attempt to feed the besieged but neither to defend them nor evacuate other than the worst medical cases. To defend them would involve us, the West, in a military intervention we don't want in a place in which we have little direct and immediate interest. Or so we say.

At the Quai d'Orsay, the French Foreign Ministry, the word is that the Serbs have what they want: ''The Muslims now have grasped that there will neither be a Western military intervention nor lifting of the embargo (which keeps the Bosnians from officially receiving arms and munitions). One can therefore expect a fall-off in the fighting.''

It is better that the women and children do leave. I had a call last week from Sarajevo, from someone I met while there in September, an official of UNICEF. She had the usual horror stories to tell, but added that the fear expressed by the children has become acute (and with reason). A UNICEF consultant, Rune Stuvland, a Norwegian specialist in war trauma, last week interviewed 65 children in Sarajevo, of whom 82 percent thought they would be killed, 75 percent have had to flee homes or shelter, half have seen others killed, 38 percent have been shelled in their own homes, 36 percent were personally shot at by snipers.

My friend quoted a 29-year-old Bosnian doctor, who said that she had never hated anyone until now. ''People who wound and kill children must feel that they can do anything with complete impunity. They feel powerful and I now believe that they must enjoy this suffering. I hate myself for hating them, because I never wanted to feel like that ever in my life, and I hate the world for not being able to stop the slaughter.''

I myself do not feel that the besieging forces of Kadovan Karadzic and Biljans Plavsic, two of the three university-professor leaders of the self-proclaimed independent Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, enjoy the suffering. My own impression of Dr. Plavsic was that she felt herself compelled to elaborate a fantasy version of the situation (Sarajevo hospitals serving as camouflaged bases for an Islamic ''jihad'' inspired from abroad, etc.) as a method of exculpating herself from the guilt imposed by her responsibility for the horrors inflicted upon people who until last year were her neighbors and university colleagues.

Dr. Karadzic, president of this Serb Republic, a psychiatrist, maintains that there is no siege of Sarajevo at all. He told the Washington Post last week that the Serb forces surrounding Sarajevo are protecting Serbs ''from crimes and genocide,'' and that there would be no suffering if the non-Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina would abandon their homes in its cities and go away to the countryside or abroad. This surely reveals an inversion and suppression of reality, and a projection of aggression, which the doctor, as a competent professional, would in less strenuous circumstances readily recognize.

The Western governments are functioning on no less outrageous inversions of reality. Or perhaps it is more accurate to call them suppressions of reality, since most in the Western capitals recognize what is going on. Few would agree with France's Foreign Minister Roland Dumas that blame is impartially to be distributed for what has happened in Yugoslavia, or that it is all a matter of obscure medieval passions incomprehensible to modern man -- beyond our possibility to influence.

Few would agree with the American head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, who says that the feasible military alternatives have been limited to total non-intervention or a titanic ground-naval-air operation on the scale of the Gulf War.

Most Western government leaders have believed either that they have no popular mandate to do anything about Yugoslavia or that the risks are such that there is nothing practical to be done. Thus they have sent their soldiers to U.N. units that struggle against great odds to keep those who are going to die as well-fed as possible.

Given that this will not change, it is perhaps better to get it over with in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Stop or at least slow down the killing and mutilations; partition the place between Serbs and Croats; leave some unimportant bits to the Muslims; impose ''ethnic cleansing'' generally until the survivors are redistributed. Then the west Europeans can try to send back the refugees they now harbor. They no longer will face the embarrassment of blocking their borders and turning refugees away. The television and newspapers will stop making difficulties about all this.

Then, of course, it will start up again, inside Serbia, in Albanian-populated Kosovo, and in Vojvodina with its Hungarian minority, and probably elsewhere in the Balkans and southeastern Europe. But tomorrow is another day, and Mr. Mitterrand, Mr. Major, Mr. Kohl, already have enough to think about, as has had Mr. Bush. One thing at a time.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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