Bosnia's factions likely to fight it out to the end

July 16, 1995|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Berlin Bureau of The Sun

BERLIN -- If the United Nations departs from Bosnia, that country will be left to complete its suicide unhindered and unattended by the outside world, with only its resident Muslims, Serbs, and Croats present to divvy up the corpse.

That is the legacy facing the United Nations after more than two years of troubled involvement as a would-be peacekeeper.

The Bosnian Serbs' capture last week of a U.N. "safe area" for Muslims -- the enclave of Srebrenica -- has at last forced the stay-or-leave decision long avoided by the United Nations, Europe and the United States.

If Western leaders had listened more closely during the past two years to the people in the cities, towns and mountains of Bosnia -- people whose voices have often been drowned out by the Western clamor over saving face -- they might have gotten the message on Bosnia sooner.

Bosnians of every ethnic background have tended to speak with one voice when it came to assessing the United Nations' effectiveness. They concluded long ago that the mission's failure was not only likely but almost inevitable.

"It is the U.N. Protection Force, but protecting who?" asked a Muslim woman, Jasmina Barupa, from her boarded-up, bullet-scarred home on the outskirts of Vitez in central Bosnia in May 1993. "They are here to protect themselves, and whenever the fighting starts it's as if they don't exist."

The residents of Srebrenica, now fleeing by the tens of thousands after 27 beleaguered months of U.N. "safety," would doubtless agree.

So would the people of Bihac, who huddled under heavy shelling in November that continued after the Serbs brushed aside U.N. warnings to stop.

And Sarajevo has already buried 10,000 examples of how little protection the United Nations' threats and promises provide once the war's generals decide it's time to start fighting again.

From the beginning, Bosnians such as Ms. Barupa have always believed this war would be settled the way most wars are -- on the battlefield.

Privately, U.N. officials have also come to believe this, especially once it was apparent that neither Europe nor the United States had the resolve to militarily impose a solution.

Michael Williams, who two months ago ended his tour of duty as chief U.N. spokesman in the former Yugoslavia, said, "In the 18 months I was there one had the gut feeling all along that there was an erosion taking place, and that some sort of awful end was coming."

Mr. Williams, now a policy analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said, "If there is a U.N. withdrawal, it will be a military retreat covering a political defeat." And as bitter as the United Nations' legacy will be, he said, Europe's will be even more dishonorable.

When European diplomats look back on the war, they will see a landscape littered with broken cease-fires and empty ultimatums.

There have also been 200,000 people killed -- casualties over issues that were supposed to have been settled before the Cold War set East against West.

When the Cold War ended, Europe was supposed to enter into an age when it could direct its fate without outside interference or aid.

Instead it has found itself helpless at stopping the eruption of old ethnic strife, and crying for help and guidance from the United States.

Europe's greatest economic power, Germany, has virtually removed itself from the Balkans conflict, in deference to memories of the Nazis' murderous behavior there during World War II.

"How can any European statesman get up now and speak with any credibility about collective European security?" Mr. Williams asked.

Anyone who tries certainly won't have credibility with the likes of Ratko Orozovic, who, being a Serb with a Muslim wife and a Croatian mother, is the sort of archetypal multiethnic Sarajevan once thought to be the best hope for a peaceful Bosnian future.

Mr. Orozovic, who before the war made a name for himself as a film director, has spent most of the war huddled with his family in their apartment in the heavily shelled suburb of Dobrinja. He long ago took to calling the U.N. Protection Force by the acronym UNPROFOOL, and after contemplating the world's efforts at mediation he concluded, "This war is a tragedy and a comedy at the same time."

Nor do pronouncements of European security guarantees carry weight anymore with Maria Petrlic, another Sarajevan. For the first few months of fighting she was hopeful of U.S. or European intervention, buoyed especially by the stern line-in-the-sand talk of politicians. But two years ago she decided, "It is nothing but paper, these U.N. resolutions."

The pervasiveness of such sentiments has always been apparent in the way Bosnia's armies have responded to peace plans.

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