Whatever happened to Bosnia?: Nato ministers must discuss the war again, writes Robert Block

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The Independent Online
IT IS now seven months since the most visible United Nations hero in Bosnia- Herzegovina, General Philippe Morillon, hauled a UN flag on top of Srebrenica's Posts and Telecommunications building and made a stand alongside the town's beleaguered Muslim population. He refused to leave until the Serbian siege was lifted, until aid was allowed to pass and until a lasting ceasefire was in place.

Photographs of the general on that rooftop holding the flag in his right hand were used in newspapers worldwide. That image and the television stories of his stand crystallised a moment when the world appeared to have said 'enough' to dithering while innocents were slaughtered. The plight of Srebrenica eventually led to the creation of 'safe areas' for over 1 million Bosnian Muslims.

Seven months on, General Morillon has been replaced and Srebrenica has been largely forgotten. The West never came up with the 7,500 troops it promised to enforce the 'safe areas' and earlier this month, because of troop shortages elsewhere in the country, a company of Canadians - about one-quarter of the force protecting the town - was withdrawn and redeployed. Residents, suspecting treachery, stoned UN vehicles as they left. Serbian marksmen have since taken over some of the Canadians' positions and there are increasing reports of women and children being killed by snipers as they tend their livestock or collect firewood.

'Safe areas' were once a cornerstone of the international community's policy in Bosnia, but there has been no mention of the pull-out on British television news or any comment by any Western government official. 'Safe areas' are no longer safe and hardly, if ever, talked about.

Another 'safe area', Sarajevo, came under almost continuous shelling from Serbian positions at the weekend. At least four people were killed and 30 wounded, yet this disturbing turn of events after six weeks of calm went virtually unreported.

Whatever happened to Bosnia? There was a time when it was impossible to turn on your televsion set without being confronted by a barrage of suffering from the former Yugoslav republic. Then, nothing. It was as if the whole affair was a recurring nightmare that had inexplicably ceased.

'The war in Bosnia is not in any more,' says Tihomir Loza, a Sarajevo columnist, in a forthcoming edition of WarReport, the bulletin of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London. 'The news that 1 million people are hungry is not news any more, because people have already been hungry . . . have already been thirsty, without electricity or heat in the middle of winter, or under heavy shelling.'

'The news caravan has obviously moved on and our wise and noble leaders are breathing a sigh of relief,' said Mark Wheeler of the London University School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies. 'Without both television pictures and official comments the story can lapse into total obscurity and that is where our leaders want it to be.' Media coverage, particularly television pictures of Bosnia's suffering, gave the story the highest profile for more than a year. But what gave the television images their force were the statements from governments that they were going to do something.

Bosnia's recent 'disappearing act' has been aided by the shortage of initiatives connected with institutions of the international community. The Bosnian parliament's rejection last month of the peace plan that would have carved the country up into three ethnic mini-states was greeted with thinly-disguised relief in Europe and Washington. Neither the Europeans nor the Americans were keen to send troops to enforce a three-way partition that had provoked criticism from all the warring parties.

President Bill Clinton, bedevilled by America's disastrous performance in Somalia, did not want to get in any deeper water. The Europeans, for their part, especially the French and the British governments, appear to have hoped that if the issue were kept out of the news long enough it might go away. Criticism of the media last month by the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, for what he said was 'over- coverage' of Bosnia, underscored a conscious effort on the part of some Western leaders to downgrade the issue and place Bosnia on the back burner. This, combined with what looks like the death of the peace process, took the drama out of the story for the media.

The strategy of conspicuous silence appeared to have been working until Mr Clinton put Bosnia back on the political agenda at the weekend with his criticism of Europe for its reluctance to allow the arming of Bosnia's Muslims.

According to Nato sources, last week there was no real intention to spend much time on Bosnia at today's meeting of Nato defence ministers. 'The heat has gone out of the issue,' one source said. But in the aftermath of the President's Washington Post interview, the Bosnian question is going to open today's meeting. American insistence on raising the 'full range of issues' on Bosnia, not excluding lifting the arms embargo on the Muslims, promises that the debate will continue, despite European desires to let it fade.

However, the recent lapse of attention and the failure of the peace process has already allowed the European powers to shift the argument over Bosnia from 'what should we do?' to 'when should we pull out?' Last week the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, said that unless a peace formula in former Yugoslavia was found soon 'the presence of United Nations forces, including Spanish soldiers, will have to be re-examined'.

And while Britain announced on Monday that it was extending its military involvement in Bosnia for a further six months, exceeding the year-long commitment originally envisaged, the news was accompanied by whispers that a further extension may be unlikely.

The problem for London, Madrid and Paris, however, is that no matter how much they wish, Bosnia will not go away. People are still being bombed, sniped at and murdered. If the problem is bad now it is going to get worse in just a few weeks, when the snows fall. Bosnia will, no doubt, claw its way back to the top of the news heap, and when it does it will arrive in our living rooms in the form of television pictures of frozen corpses and blue- faced, starving children. Only this time governments will not react with any sense of immediacy. Russia, Somalia, an increasingly isolationist America and a divided, dithering Europe have seen to that.

(Photograph omitted)