Sarajevo's 'protector' speaks under shellfire: Robert Fisk meets the French UN general with a doubly impossible mission

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The Independent Online
IN VIETNAM, they staged the nine o'clock follies. In the Gulf, Messrs Schwarzkopf and company put on their show from Riyadh at 5pm, just in time to catch the American morning news shows. But in Sarajevo the follies come sharp on 9.30 every shell- blasted morning, deep in the shattered United Nations headquarters, close enough to be drowned out by the sound of artillery fire, far enough from reality to leave its officers unscathed.

All you have to do to attend the Sarajevo follies is don a 10kg flak jacket, strap a steel helmet to your head and drive at 100 mph in an armoured car towards the airport. When you see the old telephone exchange on the left, jump out of the vehicle, ignore the breath-wrenching explosions 100 metres away and run for your life towards the broken glass door of the United Nations Protection Force (Unprofor). Inside that master of ceremonies, General Philippe Morillon, awaits you.

'I'm not on trial,' he pleaded with us at the weekend, as the shells howled over the building. 'How long will it last? I cannot answer this question. To use force? Against whom? It's not for me to decide but for the Security Council.' Most generals like to hold batons in press conferences, to look martial and to point at maps. Gen Morillon waves the broken aerial of a radio.

He had just been investigating the killing of one of his Foreign Legionnaires, almost beheaded by a mortar shell at the airport last week. 'I will not sit in my armchair with my hands folded and my face closed when my soldiers are assassinated,' he said. 'But this death will reinforce our determination, and it is another reason for us to try to achieve the mandate we have been given.'

The mandate, readers will recall, is about peace-keeping. And only 100ft or so above us - close enough to make the general's staff duck like a ballet chorus - the shells swished by.

Gen Morillon is French, an Algerian veteran, as the UN's publicity sheets point out, and a man with a double mission impossible. His first mission is to persuade the armies of murderers and rapists around Sarajevo to stop murdering and raping, to allow the UN to distribute relief supplies. His second mission is to convince the world he is succeeding.

To be fair, he is an intelligent and kindly man whose 600 legionnaires in Sarajevo are as courageous and cheerful as he is. Alternating almost flawlessly in English and French sound-bites, he invites the nastiest questions from his audience, and occasionally responds with a cracked grin which suggests he is agreeing with them, while actually saying the opposite. This weekend, however, he was exercised by the murder of his soldier and by the theatrical decision of President Alia Izetbegovic to refuse any more UN food aid.

Behind him stood a large map showing the 'fall of shot' which killed the legionnaire and wounded three others near the airport headquarters of the UN's French battalion. There had been a scientific investigation of the mortar impacts, he said, an analysis of the shrapnel, a study of the 'spray pattern' left by the mortar round. 'I have given information to President Izetbegovic,' he said, 'that this fire was directed on the headquarters of the French battalion and had been fired between 1,000 and 1,900 metres away, from an area where there are only Bosnian forces.'

He paused for the implications of this to sink in. The Serbs, it will be remembered, are supposed to be the bad guys, the Bosnians the courageous defenders. But here - not for the first time - was a UN general blaming the surrounded and largely Muslim army for murdering one of his soldiers. During this discourse, the shells began falling so close to the UN's headquarters that the Foreign Legion barricaded all roads in, lest any of us felt the urge to flee the press conference.

'President Izetbegovic was naturally very consternated (sic) and promised he would condemn and prosecute the local commander who ordered this deliberate attack against UN forces here,' Gen Morillon told us. And why would the Bosnians attack the UN? 'Some weak spirit, some weak brain, thought Unprofor was an enemy,' he replied. There had been much propaganda directed against the UN's forces in order to prove that its mandate was not powerful enough.

Mr Izetbegovic, it turned out, had more than this to answer for. For he had, only hours earlier, refused to accept any more UN aid - in order to publicise the UN's failure to send relief supplies to dozens of surrounded Muslim towns and villages in eastern Bosnia. This, of course, did not go down well with the general. He thought it irresponsible to force the 100,000 people of Sarajevo to suffer needlessly. And - though he did not say so - Mr Izetbegovic's decision raised the question of the UN's presence in Sarajevo. If the UN's only mission is to distribute aid, and the capital refuses it, then there is little reason why the general and his legionnaires should not shut up shop and get out of town.

Larry Hollingsworth, Britain's indefatigable UN aid organiser, was summoned to express his determination to go on bringing in food. Then he set off for a meeting with the offending President only to find the road barricaded by UN troops. 'I had to climb over the bloody wall to get to the meeting,' he said later.

Generals like to be philosophers from time to time. Gen Morillon is no different. 'The people here are diminished after months of starvation,' he said. 'President Izetbegovic's decision was the kind of action taken by Mahatma Gandhi - yet he never imposed it on others.'

But then, Gandhi never had to suffer 10 months of artillery bombardment, let alone the protection of the United Nations.

SERBIAN forces turned back a convoy of food trucks heading for a besieged Muslim enclave in eastern Bosnia, where 100 people have reportedly died from starvation. In London, Malcolm Rifkind, the Defence Secretary, said British troops would be recalled if any ceasefire collapsed.

(Photograph omitted)

Crisis for UN, page 9

Defying the little Titos, page 9

Lawrence Freedman, page 19

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