Punch-drunk Serbs weary of an endless war

Robert Block in Pale reports on the heavy price soldiers and civilians are paying for their goal of an ethnically 'cleansed' Bosnia; Men have fought for a better life, only to find the opposite

Bosnian Serbs are tired of war. The exhaustion is written across the faces of women in marketplaces trying to sell a few packs of cigarettes or chewing gum in order to buy bread and meat for their children. It is visible in the eyes of soldiers returning from the front lines for ever briefer periods of leave. Girls hoping for husbands moan the lack of suitable young men. Boys talk of moving abroad to study.

The struggle to live in an ethnically homogeneous country free from the clutches of what they saw as an Islamic state is starting to wear down people in Serb-held Bosnia. More than three years of war and international isolation have exacted a heavy price in human lives and the standard of living.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Pale, the Bosnian Serb "capital" in the mountains south-east of Sarajevo. Men and women in the main market sell a paltry selection of goods and personal items near a board covered in freshly posted black-and-white death notices. The overwhelming number of notices are for men killed in recent fighting around Sarajevo.

"Life is unbearable," said Milanka Andric, a stall holder at Pale's market. "My husband and brothers are on the front and I must try to sell a few cigarettes here to buy food for me and the children. I can't run away, but I think about it sometimes."

Even people involved in the Bosnian Serb state's propaganda machine - those employed safely behind the lines by Pale's television station or the international press centre - talk privately about their pending immigration applications to Australia and Canada.

The crisis appears most acute among soldiers who have been fighting for three years for what they first thought was a better life, only to find the opposite.

"Everyone has problems eating away at them," said a soldier from a key front-line unit around Sarajevo who did not want to be identified. "Even people who were fanatical supporters of the war have personal crises, people at home to feed, hungry children to worry about. Even they don't see a solution. There is no choice, no exit. There is only war."

The image of the Bosnian Serb army which emerges from the stories of soldiers returning from the front can be likened to a boxing champion matched against a third-class opponent who finds himself in the 13th round of what he thought would be a one-round contest. The soldiers are tired, dispirited and angry that their enemy is still fighting.

The vice-president of the self-declared Bosnian Serb republic, Nikola Koljevic, touched on this in a recent interview: "The Muslims don't want to admit that they lost this war. Our struggle now is to show them that they cannot possibly win."

This, however, may be easier said than done. Almost every soldier interviewed since the Muslims launched a big offensive two weeks ago agreed that the mainly Muslim Bosnian government forces are fighting harder than ever.

"The Muslims are stronger and everyone is nervous," said a soldier whose unit occupies an important ridge overlooking Sarajevo which came under attack during in the early part of the offensive. "We pushed them back but it was harder than ever before."

General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army commander, acknowledged in an interview with the Independent last week that everyone, including the army, was tired of the war.

"Nobody wants peace more than the soldiers. And I know that from the experience of a man who has been four years on a hard road of suffering with his people," he said.

A few months ago General Mladic won a big battle with the political leadership over the government's failure to pay soldiers. Recently, soldiers have been receiving the equivalent of pounds 10 a month in government cheques and coupons.

But few find their lot has improved. The coupons can be redeemed only in government shops which are notoriously short of supplies, especially food and necessities such as soap and lavatory paper.

Early last week, in the Pale market, a soldier fresh from the front argued with a stall keeper. "What can I buy with these?" he asked. The woman pointed to an old pack of biscuits and smiled sheepishly. "What about the cabbage or some eggs?" the soldier insisted. The woman pointed back at the biscuits.

The soldier relented and bought them. Turning towards a group of onlookers, he said sarcastically: "Worth dying for."

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