The Shame of Srebrenica

July 13, 1995|By DIANE PAUL

Srebrenica, a U.N.-designated ''safe area'' in Bosnia, has fallen, and as many as 40,000 people are in flight for their lives, many of them for the second or third time in as many years. The town is virtually deserted except for Serb snipers, who, the Associated Press reports, are ''shooting at anything that moves.''

A U.N. official earlier described Srebrenica as a "massive concentration camp,'' with hungry refugees crammed into every available space to shield themselves from Serb gunfire. They are no strangers to ''ethnic cleansing,'' but where will they go now to escape it?

The Bosnian ''safe areas'' of Zepa and Gorazde are also in danger. Yet U.S. and other officials shake their heads on CNN and say, ''The attack on U.N. Protection Force troops could signal the end of the humanitarian mission in Bosnia.''

Not a word said about the lives of the 40,000 refugees, mostly women and children, which hang in the balance -- or the potential tens of thousands of others who are being abandoned to the tender mercies of the Bosnian Serbs.

The people of Sarajevo and the remaining U.N.-designated ''safe areas'' are by now completely disillusioned by the failure of the international community to take a stand in defense of the victims of this cruel conflict.

We are willing to risk American lives to save U.N. peacekeepers but not to save innocent women and children. We are appalled at the carnage but maintain a safe distance. We apply diplomatic pressure -- so long as it doesn't upset our allies. We willingly give aid to keep people from starving but not to enable them to defend themselves. As a man in Sarajevo said, ''At least I shall die on a full stomach.''

It is said that only the warring parties themselves can decide to end the conflict. The whole issue could be solved, it is said, if only they were left to fight it out. (Presumably this means the ''warring factions'' of women and children in Srebrenica, Tuzla, Bihac, Sarajevo and other ''safe areas'' would finally have their chance to go at it.)

The virtue of this approach, it is said, is that at least it would put rTC the people involved out of their misery. So now we watch as the people of Srebrenica are put out of theirs.

Lifting the arms embargo against Bosnia has become the only morally justifiable solution, given the failure of the international community to protect civilians in the the U.N.-designated ''safe areas'' and the Bosnian Serbs' refusal to sign a peace agreement even after being offered 49 percent of Bosnia's territory.

The Bosnian Serbs far outgun Bosnian government forces. Recent news reports suggest that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic continues to provide arms and military advisers to Serb militias occupying Bosnia and Croatia, and that he still exerts at least some control over what is happening in those areas.

Will Mr. Milosevic be content to watch from the sidelines if the Bosnian government engages the Bosnian Serbs militarily on several fronts and recaptures lost territory?

It may be difficult logistically for the Bosnian government to deploy their new weapons in many areas. No one seems willing to address the issue of what will happen to civilians in the immediate aftermath of lifting the arms embargo. Civilians left in the hard-to-defend eastern enclaves of Zepa and Gorazde may well pay the price that those in Srebrenica are paying.

Lifting the arms embargo also may hasten the departure of the U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) even if it is not already too late to stop their withdrawal. Despite much deserved criticism, UNPROFOR has saved many thousands of lives by its presence.

If UNPROFOR leaves, many humanitarian and relief agencies may follow suit because it simply will be too dangerous for them to remain. UNPROFOR has enabled scores of relief convoys to get through. But without any international presence, civilians in many areas would be sitting ducks.

Most of the civilians in the ''safe areas'' are displaced women and children who have already been terrorized and forced from their homes at least once before. The Bosnian Serbs have shown themselves both willing and able to cut off civilians throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite U.N. resupply efforts. If those efforts stop or diminish, this winter will be even worse for civilian refugees than the last two.

What if the Bosnians are unable to mount an effective response to Serb aggression even after the arms embargo is lifted? Would merely lifting the embargo absolve us of responsibility for the safety of civilians there?

The international community cannot in conscience abandon the Bosnians to their fate. If a serious military effort were mounted to halt the attacks on ''safe areas'' and all diplomatic channels brought to bear on finding a solution, there still might to hope for a negotiated settlement.

Now is not the time to give up on Bosnia. The lives of hundreds of thousands of people hang in the balance. To stand idly by while they are mercilessly starved or slaughtered would be more than shameful; it would be inhuman.

Diane Paul is a Baltimore social worker who has spent 10 months in the former Yugoslavia working on human rights issues.

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