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Issue 1 October 1993
Bihac: surviving against the odds
By Alex Portnoy

Winter is on its way and there is little sign that the Bosnian position is improving. The isolated victories in central Bosnia offer a slim ray of hope, but it needs to be emphasised that these have taken place despite the actions of the UN and the EC. As supporters of the Bosnian cause know only too well, the pressure is on the legal government in Sarajevo to make concessions on the map. At the same time, Serb and Croat forces continue their rush for territory.

But there is one area of Bosnia that has held out since April 1992; the Bihac region in the north-west. Although Bihac has been the subject of a fair deal of examination, much of it has been wide of the mark.

Under any partition deal, Bihac will be designated as "Muslim territory". That in itself is reason enough to clarify what the area's political and military leaders are thinking and saying. For while Bihac is not seen as having the same strategic importance as other towns in central and eastern Bosnia, that may well change if the Owen-Stoltenberg carve-up is pushed through.

I recently visited Bihac in order to see for myself what is going on. I was immediately struck by the immense pressure that there is on the area. To get there, you have to drive from Karlovac through the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina in Croatia. Once inside the Bihac area, it would take you about an hour to drive to the point where Bosnian Army positions end and Bosnian Serb positions begin. Around 300,000 people, including 50,000 refugees, are packed into an area which they cannot leave, because of the relentless Serbian siege.

Even so, calm does prevail. Although there is sporadic shooting in the hills around Bihac, the town itself has not suffered any major shelling since May 6, when it was declared a UN Safe Area. In that sense, it has lived up to the name more than any of the other five areas - Sarajevo, Tuzla, Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde - that are supposed to be protected by the UN.

There are two main reasons for this. The first is the outstanding performance in the field of the Bosnian Army Fifth Corps, under the Command of Ramiz Drekovic. Commander Drekovic has built up a disciplined, motivated military force that has so far maintained its alliance with the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), unlike in central Bosnia. Drekovic is also clear about what he is fighting for. He showed me a video of a recent speech he gave in Velika Kladusa, to mark the first anniversary of the Fifth Corps formation. Drekovic told the crowd: "The Serb fascists are committing genocide against the Muslim people, but we are not fighting for our faith. Our goal must be a united Bosnia which protects the rights of all its constituent nations".

The second factor is Fikret Abdic, a member of the Bosnian Presidency and founder of the Agrokomerc food processing company. Known in the area as Babo (Daddy), Abdic, who was sent to prison in 1987 on unsubstantiated charges of financial corruption, is widely perceived as hostile to the Sarajevo government. Many people see him as willing to make a deal on partition, which is why humanitarian aid comes through to the area with little trouble. Abdic is also said to profit from the rampant black market in the area.

Opinions are mixed. A Bosnian soldier I met told me that Abdic had "sold out for some tinned goods". But a young student said that while Abdic was profitting, "I profit too". One thing is for sure: regardless of Abdic's political activities, the people of Bihac are squarely behind a united Bosnia. As Bihac regional assembly President Ejub Topic pointed out, without Sarajevo, Bihac is unlikely to survive.

Commander Drekovic shares this view, adding that the arms embargo remains a significant obstacle. If he had the weapons, he would be able to direct a push to the south that would threaten both Serb and Croat insurgents. But there are no signs that the international community is about to change its position. So while the people of Bihac are not starving, their wretched situation will stay the same until the EC and the UN stop appeasing aggression.

  • Since this article was written, Fikret Abdic has declared the Bihac pocket an "autonomous province of Western Bosnia" under his Presidency. The Bosnian Army's Fifth Corps has remained predominantly loyal to Sarajevo, and has moved to put down the rebellion, centred on the town of Velika Kladusa. Fikret Abdic himself has been dismissed from the Bosnian Presidency.

    Alex Portnoy is a London-based journalist and political activist who recently visited Bosnia.

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