Blockade on Serbs seems more symbolic than real

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The Independent Online
SERBIAN border police waved the red van across the Zvornik bridge into Bosnia yesterday morning with little more than a cursory glance. Coming from the other direction, Bosnian lorries loaded with wood, often used as barter, passed unhindered into Serbia. The blockade against the upstart Serbs in Bosnia was supposed to be in full force but that was news to the Serbian customs official stationed at the bridge.

The blockade was declared by the government of President Slobodan Milosevic on Thursday, just hours after the Bosnian Serb parliament snubbed his pleas to accept the Vance- Owen peace plan. Late yesterday morning though, all the customs official at the bridge could do was shake his head and shrug his shoulders.

'I only know what I read in the papers and hear on the radio. There has been nothing official. Maybe something will come later in the day,' he said.

On the other side of the bridge, however, in Zvornik's main market - alongside the twisted rubble of what used to be the town's mosque - the news of the embargo was possibly worse than the embargo itself. It hit the people like a left hook they did not anticipate, leaving them befuddled and unsure of the world around them.

Gathering outside the permanent cement stalls, sparse except for some pathetic-looking fruit, spring onions, potatoes and lonely single packs of cigarettes, they reacted with a mixture of incredulity and defiance.

'It is not right that Serbia should put such pressure on us. Serbia is not Germany. Serbia does not practise genocide,' one young man said. 'What can we do?' asked a woman selling a few jugs of vegetable oil. 'Almost everything comes from Serbia.'

Some said it was not Mr Milosevic's fault. ('The international community is trying to split us.') Others called Serbia's President a traitor and said they only recognised their own leader, Radovan Karadzic.

For his part, Mr Karadzic told foreign journalists that Serbia's reaction 'has an impact on our souls', but added that his people would resist and survive if they so wished. However, few Serbs outside areas bordering Serbia, like Zvornik, knew about the supposed blockade. The development was conspicuously absent from Bosnian Serb television and radio reports.

It will take days for the news - let alone the effects of the blockade, if it takes hold - to settle in across the country, and even then it may make little difference. Bosnian Serbs for the most part are not town-dwellers. They are from tough rural stock, farmers and country people used to getting by on very little. 'We survived the Second World War without any support. My father was in the battle of Sutjeska in 1943 and he did not see bread for 45 days and he survived,' said one man defiantly in the Zvornik market.

But food is not the problem. The dependency that Bosnian Serbs have on Mother Serbia is for fuel which they need to power their war machine. Supplies of petrol are already scarce. Throughout Bosnia the roadsides are lined with people waiting, sometimes all day, for the rare vehicle, or even rarer bus, to take them to see relatives or ferry them across the border into Serbia. In Sekvici, at one of the few functioning petrol stations in eastern Bosnia, the owner said the last delivery of petrol was 10 days ago and that the town's mayor was so far unable to arrange any more.

There are those willing to help. On the Serbian side of the border, drinking coffee with a group of friends at one of the many roadside cafes in Mali Zvornik, the local petrol station owner, Milomar Yevdic, said he would defy any government ban. 'People here will help because they are our neighbours and relatives. Those blood ties mean that we will help them secretly,' he said.

His promise of support was more symbolic than real. International sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro mean rump Yugoslavia faces fuel problems of its own, a fact that even Mr Yevdic acknowlegdes. 'Of course, we cannot give what we ourselves don't have,' he said.

So far the blockade's biggest impact has been on European leaders who hope that Mr Milosevic's punitive move combined with the threat of Western bombing may yet change Bosnian Serb minds and ensure that the option of intervention will not actually have to be used. It may, however, blockade or no blockade, already be too late to avoid military action.