Bosnian Serbs dig in for battle with the world

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The Independent Online
IN Republika Srpska, the self- declaredSerbian state in Bosnia, the favourite paranoid fantasy - 'Why does everyone hate us?' - is fast becoming a bewildering reality.

Belgrade has closed (at least temporarily) the arms and fuel pipeline to its Bosnian clients; Washington plans to open the weaponssupply route to Sarajevo unless Pale, the capital, accepts the latest peace plan.

At the dusty border post of Srpska Raca, civilian buses and cars (most heading towards Serbia) were able to cross in minutes rather than the usual hours. A Bosnian Serb border guard, born in Sarajevo, said no lorries were crossing, even though food, medicine and clothing are exempt from the embargo. Up the road, tankers and lumber lorries stood idle.

Bijeljina, on the Serbian border in northern Bosnia at the start of the Posavina corridor, has done well out of the war, but business has gone bad in the past 10 days. The road leads to Banja Luka, the principal town in Republika Srpska, and then to the Krajina Serb- held areas of Croatia. Petrol stations line the pot-holed two- lane road. But the pumps bear a sign saying 'No petrol'. Closer to the border crossing at Srpska Raca, the newest garage in town, painted a virulent pink with turquoise panels, has become home to dozens of disconsolate truckers from Krajina without money or diesel to drive home.

Mile, the pump attendant, sold out of fuel by 10am last Friday, less than 24 hours after Serbia declared its embargo on Republika Srpska. 'Business is going badly,' said Mile. 'Only the shop (and accompanying bar) is open, and the truck-drivers are our only customers.'

He surveyed the forecourt, packed with about a dozen lorries loaded with lumber for sale in Serbia. 'It seems the embargo is serious this time. It will probably last until we sign the peace plan,' Mile said. None the less, he plans to vote 'no' in the referendum on the international proposal unless the map is redrawn.

Under the contact group proposal rejected three times by the Bosnian Serb leadership, Republika Srpska would surrender a third of its war gains but would not be allowed political union with Serbia.

'(Slobodan) Milosevic is wrong,' said Slavko, a trucker from Krajina. 'We thought he cared about us, but it seems that he betrayed us.'

Dragica, who sells Levi's and T-shirts, criticised her leaders, but saved most of her ire for Bill Clinton. 'The US has absolutely no right to be involved here,' she said. 'You cannot give the orders in someone else's house.'

'I don't know what (Mr Clinton's) game is,' Mile said. 'Why should he lift the arms embargo when they are already getting weapons?'

Bijeljina is a rich agricultural area, and most of the rolling fields are sown with maize, vegetables and sunflowers. The odd cow wanders around, but the productive dairy herds are kept in Vojvodina, in northern Serbia.

At shops and market stalls, prices are slowly goingup, residents say, and hard currency is a must. 'In many private shops they don't want to take (Yugoslav) dinars any more, only Deutschmarks. It's the first sign,' said one young woman.

Further south in Zvornik, where the jade waters of the River Drina mark the border with Serbia, black-market fuel is only slightly cheaper than in Sarajevo; men and women line the road hawking plastic jugs of petrol at DM4 per litre. Across the border in Mali Zvornik stands a mosque; on the Bosnian side the only reminders of the town's pre-war Muslim majority are the gutted ruins of 'ethnically cleansed' houses.

Muslims in the Drina valley were driven from their homes long ago, but in Bijeljina it is happening now. In the past two weeks, aid officials have interviewed more than 100 Muslims expelled from the town and sent across the front line to Tuzla. It is a sensitive issue in Bijeljina, but Ilinka, a cafe owner, admitted there was intimidation.

Zora, a refugee from government-held Bugojno, in central Bosnia, has no desire ever to live with her old neighbours.

'The Muslims forced us to go,' she said. 'We were running away at the point of their knife. We were a minority and it was easy to push us out.'

Asked about those expelled from Bijeljina, she replied: 'It's normal. We're a majority, the Muslims had to leave.'

(Photograph omitted)

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