Serbs invoke history on eve of 'no' vote to Bosnia plan

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A HUGE flag draped across the blackboard and portraits of famous Serbian generals, kings and the man of the moment, Radovan Karadzic, President of the self- styled 'Republika Srpska', had transformed a Sarajevo classroom into polling station No 1.

Today the residents of Grbavica, a Serb-held suburb of the city will vote in the latest Bosnian referendum. There is no doubt about the outcome. The question is: 'Are you in favour of the map for the territorial division of the former Bosnia-Herzegovina proposed by the international Contact Group?' The answer from most people will be, 'No'.

'I will vote against the map,' said Marco, a soldier in Grbavica. So did a policeman in Zvornik, four soldiers on the front line in eastern Bosnia, a trader in Bijeljina, an editor in Pale, a middle class couple in Sokolac, a journalist in Sarajevo, and a politician. Even Ramo, an elderly Muslim man unloading flour from an aid lorry in Grbavica will vote against - although, as he said, he had no choice. Across Bosnian Serb territory the message is the same. The only dissenting voices came from two young conscripts - 'Don't use my name or Karadzic will put me on the shame list' - and an old Muslim, a former Partisan, living in Grbavica.

'(The referendum) is a double- edged sword,' said the old man. 'If you vote, you are adding to a ridiculous stupidity; if you don't, they will notice and mistreat you.' He supports the Sarajevo government but would never tell his Serbian neighbours. The young soldiers are just fed up. 'I want peace,' said Mirko. 'I will vote yes and then we can fight on politically. I am sick of war. I'm 21 and I have been fighting for three years. My house has been burned down, my things are lost, they killed my father, but still I will vote 'yes'.'

His comrade, Dragomir, 19, said: 'I will not vote in the referendum. I just want to escape to the West and make a new life.' He added: 'It doesn't matter what they sign, the war will continue.' His words were echoed with more resolve by a Bosnian Serb official in Grbavica. 'We know that war will continue, whatever the result. Accepting this map is like putting your head on the block,' he said.

The map, a diplomatic creation perceived by Serbs as humiliating, requires the Serbs to surrender one-third of the land they hold. It does not matter that the Contact Group of Britain, the United States, Russia, France and Germany, have said the map is negotiable if the Serbs accept the plan in principle; nor that Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, says he will blockade 'Republika Srpska' until it agrees.

To the Serbs the 'Islamic fundamentalists' across the front line are intent on genocide, as were the Croatian Fascists in the Second World War, the Austro-Hungarians in the First World War and the Turks before that. The international community is part of the plot. Serbia's embargo is either clever tactics (fool the world into lifting sanctions) or selfishness (sacrifice Bosnian brothers to force world to lift sanctions).

So the Bosnian Serbs stand alone, apparently without the support of their old patrons in Belgrade. It is clear they are rejecting not just the hated map but the very idea of a compromise peace. As the conquerors of 70 per cent of Bosnia, they feel the settlement demanded by the West is unjust. 'We will go for a final defeat or victory,' said Radomir, a soldier on the front line in eastern Bosnia. Jovan, a policeman from Zvornik, said: 'In every war there are winners and losers.'

Back at polling station No 1, Radmila Bjelica and Georgina Obradovic filled brown paper carrier bags with election material for distribution to 15 voting sites in Serb-held Sarajevo. They were set also to vote against the peace plan. Ms Obradovic said voters had been informed about the issues through the media and public meetings. But both are controlled by the ruling SDS party.

Zdravko Salipur, the local SDS boss, explained the official line: 'The state wants all the parties to support our political leadership, which is saying that this is not the time to accept the plan.' But anyway, 'the people would decide their own destiny'.