Dead Muslim warriors erode Serb morale

Pale/ 'capital' in search of credibility
Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE HEAVILY wooded road twisting down from Pale to Serb-held parts of Sarajevo is one of the most beautiful in the region, even with the sandbags and sniper posts that dominate the views. Last week the Bosnian Muslims were supposed to have seized this route, cleared out the snipers, and inflicted a stinging defeat on the Serbs.

Yesterday, all that remained of the Bosnian Muslims' occupation of the Pale-Lukavica road was a pile of chopped wood.

Bosnian Serbs originally denied the road was ever lost, but now admit that Muslims did take it briefly last Friday, scattering Serb soldiers and felling trees to stop traffic. A few hours later, Serb reinforcements arrived and took the road back. Those Muslims surprised by the speed of the Serb response were supposedly killed.

Once again tough-looking Serb soldiers with broad shoulders and square jaws patrol the area as they have done throughout the war, checking traffic and keeping their guns trained on the city below.

The reversal of fortunes on the Pale-Lukavica road was supposed to have been an important victory for the Bosnian Serbs. But instead of lifting their spirits, what happened on the road last week haunts them. "What bothers us most," said one Bosnian Serb in uniform, "was that Muslims we killed on the road died with smiles on their faces. Why were they smiling? They were dead. We had the road."

One week after the mainly Muslim Bosnian government army launched its big offensive around Sarajevo, the Serbs appear to control most, if not all, the strategic areas ringing the Bosnian capital. However, the fight to keep them in Serbian hands has exacted a heavy price in casualties and morale.

The Muslims' unwillingness to lie down and accept defeat now apparently extends even unto death. This is maddening to Serbs who feel that they have won the war but are being denied the opportunity to enjoy their victory by their enemies as well as by the international community.

When talking to foreign journalists, Serb soldiers still talk defiantly, but even their bravado is starting to sound tired. "The Muslims are fighting hard, but we are fighting harder. Their offensive is a failure. We took many casualties, but they took more. They can never win this war," said one large military policeman. Somehow he did not seemed convinced.

It was only after a few glasses of brandy and talk of the beauty of the surrounding hills that he betrayed the reasons for his unhappiness. "We are tired of this war. We want normal lives again, living with our families."

Even the swagger that the Bosnian Serbs have developed over the last years seems to have disappeared. Three years of unrelenting war has exhausted the Serbs physically as well as financially. According to some sources in Pale, many soldiers have not been paid in months. For those lucky enough to have work, the average monthly salary is the equivalent of about pounds 8. The difficulty of stretching that is reflected on the grim faces of those leaving Pale's market.

Pale is many ways a shadow of its former self. Although just a small village and ski resort with scarcely 20,000 inhabitants, one main street and two video clubs, in years past the streets were busy with teenagers and young couples. Today the streets are quiet. Muslim shells landing around the town for three consecutive days earlier this week, the first for almost three years, were partly responsible, but the truth is that fewer young people live in Pale now.

Many have left. Those who have not dream about leaving. "Why should I stay?" asked Dragana, a 16-year-old girl with dreams of becoming a model. "What future is here for me? There are not even any boys." Most of the men have been mobilised or have fled to neighbouring Serbia and Montenegro to avoid fighting. The number of deserters and men fleeing conscription has become a major concern for the Bosnian Serb government. Last week Pale announced it would bring charges against deserters and might punish their families. At the same time Belgrade has been rounding up Bosnian Serb refugees living in Serbia and Montenegro and shipping them back to Bosnia for front-line duty.

Every day busloads of sheepish-looking men cross the Drina river, which separates the flatness of Serbia from the mountains of Bosnia. Bosnian Serb officials are sometimes there to greet them with taunts of "Welcome back, patriots." While the warm bodies are desperately needed to beef up the ranks of the overstretched Bosnian Serb army, both military and political leaders are fully aware that reluctant soldiers make bad soldiers.

Nikola Koljevic, the vice-president, drew deeply on his glass of wine and admitted that time was not on the Bonsian Serbs' side. "We are ready for peace," he said. "But it is obvious that the Muslims are not. Therefore we must show them that no one can win this war."

It would be a mistake to deduce that the Serbs, with all their troubles, are weak. Most are still convinced of the justice of their cause, and are prepared to fight and die. At the moment there is talk of a Serb offensive against Mount Igman, which the Muslims use to resupply Sarajevo. The theory is that if Igman falls again to the Serbs, the Muslims will finally see the futility of continuing the war.

"We must," Bosnian Serbs in uniform say, "take the smile off the Muslims' face."

lA British peace-keeper, Darren Hole from Bournemouth, has died in the central Bosnian town of Vitez after shooting himself in the head, a Ministry of Defence spokeswoman said.