Bosnian Serbs discover that they have no friends

November 03, 1994|By Samantha Power | Samantha Power,Special to The Sun

PALE, BOSNIA-HERZAGOVINA — PALE, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Stuck in Belgrade, the Serbian capital about 150 miles from his own Bosnian Serb capital here, Jovan Zametica, a principal adviser to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, was begging for a ride.

"I'm not fat, and I have a small suitcase," he implored.

Mr. Zametica hoped to get back to the "White House," a former convalescent home now housing the Bosnian Serb "presidency" in this ski-resort-turned-capital just outside Sarajevo. But a stringent Serb-on-Serb embargo had stripped him of his clout in rump Yugoslavia. "Somehow all of my government contacts have failed to produce a car," Mr. Zametica sighed.

Almost three months after Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic imposed a blockade on his brethren in neighboring Bosnia, the Bosnian Serbs are ailing. Fuel, guns and Bosnian Serb functionaries cannot traverse the previously porous 330-mile border that separates Bosnia from Serbia and Montenegro, the two states that form Yugoslavia.

Paying hefty price

"Republika Srpska," the 70% of Bosnia controlled by Serbs, is paying a hefty military and economic price.

In its largest defeat to date, the Bosnian Serb army has lost over 150 square kilometers near the Bihac enclave in northwestern Bosnia, creating over 10,000 Serbian refugees.

On the roads, Bosnian Serb smugglers hawking jerrycans of gasoline far outnumber cars. Factories that once produced spare parts for "export" to Yugoslavia are closing. Prices have leapt by a third. Medicine and anesthetics are running low.

"This winter we'll have to ration everything," acknowledged Dr. Bratislav Borkovac, director of the Pale hospital. The fuel scarcities are most worrisome, both for civilians confronting another frigid winter and for the Bosnian Serb army, which must preserve a sprawling front-line.

President Milosevic's "betrayal" of the very cause he ignited, and the claustrophobia it has induced have also taken a psychological toll.

'We were shocked'

"By cutting phone lines, he did to us what the international community never even did to him," declared the Bosnian Serb "foreign minister," Alexander Buha, who has not seen or spoken to his family in Serbia since July, "It was not just unexpected, we were shocked."

Bosnian Serb leaders, who for almost three years have shuttled regularly between Geneva, Belgrade, and Pale, feel stifled. With no more foreign dignitaries popping in for talks or tea, Dr. Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, has used the free time to reacquaint himself with his de facto republic.

He has traveled extensively, reminding his Bosnian Serb constituents that their centuries-old dream is worth any sacrifice and reassuring them that the West is slowly coming around.

"Not a single state in Europe, not even Germany, wants the Serbs to lose the war, especially not to the Muslims," he told Serbian businessmen in western Bosnia recently.

Foreign Minister Buha spends his days memorizing old United Nations resolutions, and lamenting the isolation. "How can the so-called contact group avoid contact with us?" he asked, referring to the group of countries including the U.S. and Britain that has been negotiating with the parties to the conflict.

No less defiant

Hurting though they are, Bosnian Serb leaders appear no less defiant. When President Milosevic imposed his blockade Aug. 4, he hoped to compel the Bosnian Serbs to accept terms and the international community to lift its sanctions against his country for starting the whole conflict.

But Bosnian Serb leaders here say they won't sign a Western proposal to divide up Bosnia until it is amended to provide "the bare minimum for economic survival," meaning a more equitable distribution of resources, a secure land corridor in northern Bosnia and, above all else, sovereignty -- complete with a flag, army, currency, even a United Nations seat.

Though the West has classified the peace proposal's map as non-negotiable, the Bosnian Serbs insist that it be changed.

Economists expect fertile farmland to feed the self-sufficient populace, and Bosnian Croats on the opposite side of the front lines have proven all too eager fuel vendors.

The ruling few remain at least superficially sure that Mr. Milosevic will eventually come to his senses. "Yugoslavia WILL want union," insisted Mr. Buha, the Bosnian Serb foreign minister. "Just look at East and West Germany," he said. "Their differences vanished in a couple of months."

If a successful Bosnian Muslim offensive, such as the one currently under way, galvanizes "brother Serb" sentiment in Serbia, it may indeed become difficult for President Milosevic to maintain his embargo. As Mihajlo Markovic, the architect of the Greater Serbian ideal put it, "He could not afford not to come to the rescue."

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