bosnia report
No. 7 November - 1994
Asking the Bosnians
by Melanie McDonagh

For the best estimate of the morale of the Bosnian Serb insurgents, the people to ask are their recent neighbours, the Moslems who have been expelled from the "Serb Repubkic" in the latest wave of ethnic cleansing. About ten thousand people were cleansed in the period around September; those in Puzla were from Janja and Bijeljina. They knew all about the situation in the Bosnian Serb army: they had been working for it. Not as soldiersd, you understand; more as helots, digging trenches on the front whether there was shelling or not. This served the additional useful purpose for the Serb-nationalist forces that they acted as human shields. One Bosnian Army scout told me that his brigade, the Mountain Brigade, had not been allowed to fire on Bijeljina because of the presence of Moslems on the enemy front: You could tell they ware Moslems because they were the men in ciilian clothes working under armed guard.

The opinion of the expelled was unambiguous: morale on the Serb-nationaost side is dreadful. When the soldiers go to the front, said one expellee, they say goodbye to each other as though they will never see each other again. And when they return, they have a partyas though they have returned from the dead. If they can pay, or do anything to get out of going to the front, they will.

The problem in this area is political as well as military: almost all the refugees say that their difficulty was not primarily with Serbs who had lived locally (in the case of Janna, these in any case amounted only to some 20 families).The crisis came with the advent of Serbs from outside, attracted by the notion of appropriating some of the richest land in Bosnia. Coming from places like Smoluca, Podpec or Tinja, it was they who had rendered it impossible for the previous situation of cautious co-existence following the formation of the 'Serb Republic' to continue. Once these newcomers arrived, Moslems could not go out of their homes, onto the streets, into the market. The newcomers billeted themselves on Moslem families. But according to the expelled, they had extremely fraught relations with the local Serbs already there and the situation is bound to end in fighting. The problem is not unique to Bjeljina; much of the 'Serb Republic' is a house deivided against itself, with obvious effects on its army.

The presence of the ethnically cleansed is a powerful element in bolstering the morale of the Bosnian Arm y. In the Second Crops, in Tuzla and Gracanica, there are very maÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ ny refugees, from Brcko, from Bijeljina and from Doboj. Of course, the newly cleansed do not include young men of military age: at Priboj these were taken from the buses and trucks used to transport the Moslems and were sent to internment camps where they still remain (in Batkovic, Mackovic/Lopare or Suho Polje/Ugljevik). But there are plenty of soldiers who are refugees, and those who have been forced from their homes and who witnessed the atrocities that characterized the first wave of ethnic cleansing have a fixity of purpose which makes them excellent infantry.

One young soldier from the front at Teocak was typical. He was on perhaps the hardest fromt: Teoccak is a ringer jutting into Serb-held territory where the Bosnian Army is attacked from four directions. He remarked, as a matter of fact, that the Serbian forces there never used rifles. "Why should they?, he said. 'They have everything else.' What everything else includes are surface-to-surface missiles, eight metres long; PAM, PAT and Praga anti-aircraft missiles, the first of which weights 250 kilos, T-55 and T-84 tanks, and AZRA 225-061s. Yet this soldier was prepared to entertain the idea that the arms embargo should remain in force for the time being, in the interests of Sarajevo. 'Maybe we should just capture tanks from the Serbs,' he said pragmatically. He had destroyed an armoured personnel carrier himself by dint of simply throwing a grenade inside. Because the Bosnian Army has only a few anti-tank guns, it is necessary for the soldiers to rely on missiles they can throw at short range.

Apart from Teocak, the hardest front for the Second Corps is perhaps Brcko, where the Bosnian Army is a temptingly short distance from the narrowest point on the 'corridor' linking Serbia itself with the territories its proxies have occupied in western Bosnia and central Croatia. Its width here is only about six kilometres, although this varies fro m time to time. On the other side, in Posavina, there are Bosnian Croat units supplied down the Sava River from Vinkovci. In Brka, a little village four kilometres from Brcko, normal life continues pretty well as before. One woman, whose two sons had been killed on this front, remarked that eleven grenades had landed in her garden the week before. But as soon as a house is hit, work starts on rebuilding. Here, predictably, there are many refugees from Brcko who live with families in the village. They can see the roofs of their town from the front. They said that in August there had been a big Serbian offensive to try to widen the corridor, but it had failed.

In general, the situation of the Bosnian Army is incomparably better than it was at the beginning of the year. Nearly everyone has a uniform, though not everyone has proper boots. The food is much better. A year ago, the diet was a staple bean soup without much in the way of beans, and bread made from poor quality flour. Now the soldiers get rice, potatoes and meat as well as beans: a perfect orgy by comparison. Crucially, the supply of weapons has increased remarkably from a situation where soldiers were going to the front with hunting rifles, the sort you use to shoot bunny rabbits. Now every second soldier has a semi-autimatic rifle and supplies, now that the roads are open, are regular.

The trouble is that because of the necessity for all lorries to travel through Herzegovina (where the spirit of the Croat secessionist statelet of 'Herceg-Bosna' is still very much alive), the weapons are expensive, costing much more than they would at normal market rates. Evading the arms embargo means using unorthodox channels like the Mafia: the embargo means a constant drain on Bosnian funds. And the weapons are still not the heavy ones needed for ofensive warefare: what is needed even more than tanks is artillery with a calibre over 100 mm - rocketlaunchers, heavy guns and anti-tank weapons with a range of 3 kilometres or more. Fuel is terribly expensive as well, though the situation of the Bosnian Army is now probably beÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ tter than that of the other side in this respect: on one front, Bosnian soldiers have been selling petrol of Serb former neighbours.

In fact, restricted supplies of fuel to the Bosnian Serb forces are probably the one concrete result of Milosevic's much trum peted sanctions. For the well-publicized rift between the 'Serb Republic' and Belgrade does not count for much militarily. It seems that the military apparatus is as united as ever, with the command and communication structures in Belgrade, Banja Luk and Knin integrated. One young officer in Tuzla told me: 'Eighty percent of the senior officers are from Serbia, and they get their pay and their training from there. Every offensive is supplied from Serbia. All operations in Gorazde were commanded by Major-General Radoslav Grubac,, who took his orders directly from General Perisic of the 'Yugoslav' Army, General Mladic wasn't in charge, the Serbians were.'

He, like practically every other Bosnian you talk to, was damning about the provision of humanitarian help b y UNPROFOR. 'Humanitarian help is a way of depriving us of the me4ans to defend ourselves. It it's a choice, we can do without humanitarian help.' (It must be added that the mayor of Tuzlan, Mr Beslagic, says thta the municipality can provide only half the food needed locally, without help from outside.) This officer is typical, in that his estimate of the war's duration is far shorter in the event of the arms embargo being lifted. Almost everyone - commanders, officers or soldiers - agree that the war will take far longer if the Bosnian Army remains handicapped by the want of heavy artillery. The estimates vary, however;: one commander said that without the embargo, the war could last two years; with it, at least five.

The young officer presented a number of alternative scenarios. If, in the most optimistic, the Security Council were to lift the embargo and allow the Bosnian Army to be supplied with a reasonable number of new weapons, so enabling it to take Brcko and cut the corridor, then the war could be over in four or five months. If there were to be a total lifting of the embargo, and in addition air power were used against Mloadic's forces, the duration could be shorter still. (Like everyone else, he stressed that the Bosnians did not need a single ground soldier from outside.) If the embargo remained, on the other hand, the duration of the war would depend entirely on the co-operation of the Bosnian Croat units (still wholly unintegrated into the Bosnian Army despite the provisions of the Washington Accord), not just across the corridor in Orasje, where the Croat units give the impression of being entirely willing to co-operate, but in Herzegovina, the obligatory conduit for arms. He accepted without question that if the corridor at Brcko were threatened, it was likely that 'Yugoslav Army' units would re-enter Bosnia from Serbia The human potential of the 'Yugoslav Army' was not a problem, he said. What was a mattrer for oncern was its technological potential.

What Bosnian soldiers will tell you is that they can fight the war under any circumstances. With the embargo lifted, they can go straight to the area of greatest strategic important, to cut the lifeline linking Serbia to the 'Serb Republic', without which the Bosnian Serb secession cannot survive. If the embargo remains the war will be longer, bloodier and more bitter, mountain by mountain, village by village. Thus General Rose and Mr Hurd are more than a little disingenuous in suggesting that raising the embargo would mean re-igniting the war. Wrong. What it would mean is a shorter, less bloody war.


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