Bosnia’s freedom born in violence – archive, April 1992

8 April 1992
By Ian Traynor, east Europe correspondent

Independent Bosnia-Herzegovina was born yesterday in chaos and violence as Yugoslav fighters strafed strategic targets, ethnic clashes continued, and refugees fled to the relative safety of the Adriatic coast.

Washington joined the European Community in recognising Bosnian independence but Bosnian Serbs responded by proclaiming their own republic loyal to Yugoslavia and withdrawing from the collective Bosnian presidency – a move that seemed certain to presage further territorial fighting. Serbian leaders in Belgrade and Bosnia denounced the EC decision and predicted further bloodshed as a result.

The chaos was compounded by the collapse of the Bosnian government and the occupation of the parliament in Sarajevo by peace demonstrators calling for the disarming of the rival militias, fresh elections, and the formation of a new government of national salvation.

Meanwhile the Security Council authorised the earliest possible full deployment of the 14,000-strong peacekeeping force in Yugoslavia, so far represented only by some senior officers and advance units.

The most serious battles yesterday were reported from the region towards the Adriatic coast south-west of Sarajevo, where five people were said to have been killed in bombing raids on military sites. Street fighting was reported in Mostar, a stronghold of Croatian radicals who have been at daggers-drawn for months with the large Serb-dominated federal army presence in the town.

Elsewhere in the region, shelling was reported around the village of Kupres, the scene of vicious fighting at the weekend when Croatian forces repelled army attempts to take control. The region bristles with federal military sites. The aircraft bombed two of them, an armaments factory and an ordnance depot, apparently to prevent them falling into hostile hands. Further clashes were reported from the northern town of Bosanski Brod on the Croatian border where five people were reported killed by sniper fire.

Two people were killed in Sarajevo, bringing to about 20 the number of deaths there in the past three days, but the city was quieter than on Monday when Serbian snipers fired on unarmed demonstrators. The Serbian gunmen were believed to have retaken control of the Holiday Inn in the centre of Sarajevo, since Muslim militiamen and angry demonstrators stormed the building to evict them on Monday.

Bosnia’s new independence raises the question of what will happen to the heavy Yugoslav military presence in the republic, which also houses a plethora of key military installations, including airbases and arms factories. Yesterday’s air raids do not suggest that the army will be content to abandon Bosnia peaceably.

The army has already withdrawn from Slovenia and most of Croatia, and under the UN peacekeeping plan is to pull out of Croatia completely. Many of those forces have retreated to Bosnia. There are estimated to be up to 100,000 federal troops, overwhelmingly Serb, in Bosnia, and they are believed to be getting reinforcements from the neighbouring Serb-controlled region of Krajina in Croatia where UN troops are now being deployed.

In Croatia the army enabled Serb militants to wrest control of one-third of the republic in the seven-month war; in Bosnia its problems are infinitely greater. Morale has fallen, Serbia has no stomach for another war, and Bosnia’s rugged terrain makes it, unlike the flat lands of eastern Croatia, ideal for guerrilla warfare.

The Observer, 12 April 1992
By Nick Thorpe in Sarajevo

To drive across Bosnia is to discover a mosaic of confused and fearful men – Muslim, Serb and Croat – in different uniforms, each manning road blocks, determined to defend their families and communities from real or imagined threats. Their guns, exhaustion and politeness to an unarmed stranger are all they have in common.

Recognised by the international community less than a week ago, newly independent Bosnia-Herzegovina is being attacked from the inside by one part of its Serb inhabitants, and from the outside by private Serb armies, infamous for their ruthlessness in the war against Croatia.

The Bosnian government has assumed emergency powers, issued a desperate appeal for international support and asked for an investigation into an alleged massacre of more than 100 Muslim men, women and children in the north-eastern town of Bijeljina. The human catastrophe of the fighting continues unabated, as up to 10,000 refugees fled on foot west from the mainly Muslim city of Zvornik captured by Serb extremists crossing from Serbia under the command of the notorious ‘General’ Arkan.

This is an edited extract. Read in full.

13 April 1992

How fortunate are the Bosnians, and the Herzegovinians! Finland has recognised them as an independent state. So has Czechoslovakia. The pope has said he is “extremely worried” by the fighting. So is the UN security council which has sent Cyrus Vance on a fact-finding mission. He is hastening too late.

The facts can easily be found in any two or three news reports from Bosnia last week. They are not contradicted by the announcement yesterday of a ceasefire agreement with only a slender chance of lasting. Militant Serbs are bent on establishing military control over a wide swathe of eastern Bosnia, along the borders of Serbia and pro-Belgrade Montenegro. A flood of refugees has been driven out by Serbian action. The UN High Commission of Refugees has classified about 40,000 as refugees – at least as many again are unclassifiably on the move. Mr Vance and the Secretary-General need only consider last Friday’s report from the UNHCR representative, Jose Mendiluce, after visiting the preodominantly Muslim border town of Zvornik. He found approximately 3,000 people “in a desperate situation … They were terrified and without food and shelter.” They had been driven out by the Serbian Volunteer Guard. The Guard is backed by the federal army in Bosnia, which is cynically telling the Muslims to stop the violence.

The army’s strategy appears to be to integrate the Serbian irregulars in the Croatian and Bosnian enclaves, and to negotiate from strength with the UN. It hopes to gain in Bosnia, hang on in Croatia, and wear down international opposition. Behind the federal army is the malign figure of Serbian President Milosevic. Diplomats and independent Serbs in Belgrade agree that the Bosnian Serb militants take their orders from Mr Milosevic with part-assistance from the federal army. Serbian propaganda paints ethnic Serbs as innocent victims of the Bosnian Muslims while the army attacks the Muslims on the pretext of defending itself. It is a re-run of Croatia with a difference. Serbia’s government is on the verge of economic collapse; the war is consuming about 90 per cent of Serbia’s budget; the monthly level of inflation is more than 40 per cent. Yesterday’s devaluation of the dinar by 57.5 per cent is too modest to affect this, and the National Bank is running short of reserves. But Mr Milosevic is only more dangerous because he has less left to lose. The army may become more reckless as its funds run out.

The recognition of Bosnia without the will to sustain it has produced the tragedy which was widely predicted – and on a scale which may soon be worse than that of Croatia last year. The Bosnians were given a choice of two evils – to seek independence and provoke Serbian wrath or to remain in the Belgrade-dominated rump of federal Yugoslavia. It is now essential for the EC and US to back up recognition by action. The EC talks for the carving up of Bosnia into separate ethnic zones, however well intended, may only help to mask Serbian plans for separation. The root of the problem lies in Belgrade, not Sarajevo. Much tougher sanctions need to be adopted, including the freezing of “Yugoslavia’s” external accounts which effectively serve only Serbian interests. The whole UN operation in Croatia, largely based in Bosnia, is now also in jeopardy. Britain’s 1,200 support troops, placed inexplicably on hold for the election, must be sent without delay. But this innocent multi-racial victim of Serbian malevolence and international bungling needs far more help from everyone – and immediately.

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