Treacherous message of concern: The West pretends to care, salving its conscience with a 'no-fly zone' while evil stalks the earth, writes Robert Fisk in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
ALL day above the low clouds you can hear them, the howl of fighter planes, boldly salving our Western consciences in the face of evil. Their engines thunder across the city, almost submerging the sound of Serbian shellfire, sending forth that most treacherous of messages: that the West cares, that aggression cannot continue. Yes, the 'no-fly zone' is being enforced by Western pilots above Sarajevo, just as the United Nations promised it would be.

Forget for a moment that Sarajevo has never endured a single Serbian air raid. Ignore the sniper fire near the old PTT building. And pretend you can't hear the shellfire. Imagine, too, that Alija Izetbegovic, in his shell-splattered Habsburg palace in the town centre, still believes he can lead a multi-ethnic Bosnian state. And whatever you do, don't ask who cut off the water, the electricity or the sewerage. Just think of those wonderful men in their flying machines.

In Sarajevo, of course, you can't do that. Call on Tony Lamb, for example, in his chaotic office deep within the old PTT. He's been trying for days to bring 100 tons of fuel into the city, enough to keep the bakery and hospital generators running for a week. The fuel is on board a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) convoy out at the airport, but when Mr Lamb tried to drive it into town, Serbs at the checkpoint asked for 25 tons of the fuel. Since extortion long ago acquired its own legitimacy in Bosnia, Mr Lamb had no problem with that. But then the Serbs decided that despite their cut they would not allow the fuel convoy into Sarajevo - which is why it is now back at the airport.

This puts a little more pressure on Mr Izetbegovic to sign the latest, most shameful of all the peace agreements, the partition that will finally destroy the dream of a sovereign Bosnian state.

Then we have the case of eight-year-old Mirela Abdula, bleeding to death in her home after being shot in the head by a sniper, doomed unless she can be brought to the Kosovo hospital in Sarajevo for emergency surgery. But the Serbs won't let her leave her home suburb of Hrasnica.

A few days ago, the two sides arranged a swap of wounded patients across the front lines. Two wounded Muslim children were to pass through Serbian lines in Sarajevo in return for a Serbian man recovering from wounds in the Kosovo hospital. The children were handed over, but the Serb was not - the Sarajevo authorities have yet to explain why - so the Serbian commanders around Hrasnica decided that Mirela Abdula would have to pay the price.

'We are now using human life like the water - to bargain and blackmail,' a Unicef woman lamented after her driver had been refused permission for the second time to take Mirela to hospital. Which raises the question of the water. Deliberately targeted by the Serbs, Sarajevo's water treatment plants are smashed. But without generators there is no electricity anyway to run the water pumps. And without Tony Lamb's UN fuel, there is no benzine to run the generators. Even the batteries that recharge the city's telecommunications have now gone dead. For the first time since the start of the siege, Sarajevo's telephone system has collapsed.

Not for the first time, Bosnians here are wondering why the UN soldiers in the city, so experienced in repairing power and water lines, suddenly find themselves unable to help. Is this UN as well as Serbian pressure on Mr Izetbegovic? 'A line has been drawn,' Commander Barry Frewer, the UN spokesman, announced mysteriously yesterday. 'This is at least one way of getting the governments to recognise that we can only help them to help themselves . . . it is their people who are suffering . . . there has to be a link between political decisions and the military fighting on the ground.'

But Sarajevo cannot survive. To survive, it must admit to those Geneva maps that will destroy its relevance. History will suggest that, despite its powerlessness, its Muslim-led government has a lot to answer for. If Sarajevo resisted for a year, the intellectual, liberal, multi-ethnic capital of the non-existent Bosnian state, then what is its future as 'capital' of a rump state crammed with Muslim refugees, perhaps even cut off from this statelet by the Serbs and Croats? If the Serbs are given half of Sarajevo as a reward for their military and diplomatic ascendancy - which might be the cost of Sarajevo's peace - it will be the tragic end of a tragedy.

Which is why, of course, Mr Izetbegovic cannot sign the latest document. If he did, then he has struggled for nothing. And already a new breed of angry Muslim fighter is appearing on the streets of Sarajevo, cutting their teeth by besieging three police stations last week, and scouring the Holiday Inn for its cowering waiters in order to send them all up to the front lines to dig trenches. No one doubts how these Muslim fighters would respond to an Izetbegovic signature on the Geneva agreement.

Amid such collapse, the news dripping into Sarajevo from the rest of its long-lost Bosnian state seems cruelly irrelevant: 140,000 Muslims in central Bosnia preparing to leave their homes; 400 Muslims ordered to leave their houses in the Bosnian Serb 'capital' of Banja Luka; not to mention the Muslim families evicted every night by Croats from the border town of Cjaplina. Croatia is in danger of losing its status as a 'safe country' for Muslims as the Muslim offensive around Vitez erodes any hope that Mr Izetbegovic can turn his Croatian and Serbian enemies into loyal citizens. Commander Frewer acknowledged yesterday that there is not a town in the UN's area that is not either being shelled or on fire.

The UNHCR is even contemplating the unthinkable: a continuing state of anarchy in central Bosnia into which no army could physically escort its relief convoys. 'All central Bosnia could turn into a giant Sarajevo,' as one UN official put it. 'The UNHCR would just have to wait on the frontiers for the refugees to come to them.'

Meanwhile in Sarajevo, Mirela Abdula is dying and the two biggest hospitals are claiming privately that if there is to be an epidemic they will no longer have the means to diagnose it. But the people of this city still have the 'no-fly zone', patrolled by Nato's armed forces, its unprecedented nature predicated on the fact that this must be one of the most irrelevant military operations in post-war European history. Or is even the phrase 'post-war' beginning to lose its relevance in the Balkans?

Under troubled skies, page 28

(Photograph omitted)

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