Spaniards shy away from the call-up

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WHAT CAN they do: send me to Bosnia? To Spain's spiralling number of conscientious objectors, the question is no longer a joke. A group of 25 of them is to be sent to Bosnia in the New Year for a six-month stint of 'substitute social service'.

This is their constitutional alternative to nine months' military service. Until now, however, it has meant working locally with the Red Cross or national health service, tending local park gardens or helping out in old folks' homes.

In Bosnia, the objectors will be under the protection of the Spanish UN troops. Their role will be humanitarian, helping to run refugee camps away from the front lines. The trouble in Bosnia is that the front lines could be anywhere, so the objectors may well turn out to be glad of the military hardware of their compatriots in blue helmets.

All Spanish males between 18 and 30 face the call-up. The law distinguishes between conscientious objectors (who, after signing the appropriate document, cannot be jailed, and go into the 'substitute social service' for 13 months) and insumisos (unsubmissives) who simply refuse to join up. The latter face jail sentences of many months, even years, unless they back down and do the social work. A large proportion come from the Basque Country, where, for many, the idea of fighting for Spain is anathema.

Under proposals to reform the military-service law in the face of mass draft-dodging, Spanish women may also be called up, not to the armed forces but to the 'substitute social service'. The idea caused mixed reaction yesterday among Spain's female population. The response of the younger generation tended to be monosyllabic and not printable. Many women of 30 and over, however, oozed patriotism and said they would be in favour.

Government officials were at pains to point out that the idea would have nothing in common with the 'social services' imposed on women by Franco during part of his 36-year rule. In those days, women were obliged to knit, sew or cook for the needy - an activity billed by Franco as educating women in the tasks for which they were created.

In the past year the number of objectors has reached new heights: more than 60,000 young men registered as conscientious objectors between 1 January and 30 November this year, almost 10 times the figure for 1986.

Faced with such figures, Felipe Gonzalez's Socialist government has set up a commission to consider dropping compulsory military service and replacing it by social work. The Minister for Social Affairs, Cristina Alberdi, is suggesting women should be included in the call-up. She rejects the arguments of the Defence Minister, Julian Garcia Vargas, that women should be exempt for 'biological' reasons, such as maternity. Men, Ms Alberdi argues, should be encouraged to bring up the children themselves.