Sweet pall of death descends on Serb village

Bosnia crisis: EU mediator predicts that fighting will intensify 8 Muslim forces break out of enclaves and start local offensives; Robert Block visits the torched ruins of Visnjica, eastern Bosnia, after it was raided by Muslims
Click to follow
Yesterday morning the smell of burnt houses hung over the tiny Bosnian Serb village of Visnjica. There is something unmistakable about the smell of a smouldering Bosnian house. It has a fruity, hickory-like odour that comes, perhaps, from the type of wood used in the construction, or from the vast stores of home-made plum brandy kept in the cellars, and which are vapourised in the blaze.

The fragrance is usually inappropriate to the circumstances of the fire. In the case of Visnjica, a Muslim raiding party, allegedly from nearby Srebrenica, set the poor village alight on Monday.

According to survivors and Serb soldiers, the Muslims fought their way through the thick forests that encircle the village, stole five cows, ransacked the houses closest to the woods and set six of them on fire. By the time they had left, one Bosnian Serb soldier was dead, three were wounded, and one civilian, a woman, aged 65, was badly injured.

Gathered around the still smoking ruins of one house, a day after the attack, Bosnian Serb soldiers and villagers vented their frustration. "This village was always defended. The Muslims could not hit it until now. We failed this time because they surprised us, and there were too many of them fighting from different points across a three-kilometre-long line," said Sergeant-Major Vukasin Madzarevic.

"You must blame the Muslims for this," said one weary soldier, to nods of approval from his comrades-in-arms. "You must also blame the United Nations. This is their fault too," added Cvata Vukovic, who survived the raid, along with her 68-year-old husband, by hiding in the woods. UN forces around Srebrenica are clearly visible from Visnjica.

At a time when pitched battles are raging up and down the Bosnian countryside, and life marches to the rhythm of exploding artillery shells, what singles out this small attack on an insignificant village is that it took place in a part of Bosnia that was supposed to have been pacified two years ago. The fact that it took place at all, and that the Bosnian Serb army thought it necessary to show the site to foreign journalists, are portents of bad things to come.

In 1992 and 1993, Bosnian Serb forces herded thousands of Muslims into three small enclaves in eastern Bosnia - Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa - and pounded them, until the United Nations felt obliged to step in, declaring them UN-protected "safe areas".

Under the terms of the agreement with the Serbs, the UN was supposed to have disarmed the inhabitants, which it tried to do but failed. Now, according to the Serbs, the "safe areas" are being used by Muslim forces as staging-grounds for attacks behind Serb lines.

In the last month alone, at least 15 Bosnian Serb soldiers have been killed in well co-ordinated attacks. The Serbs' patience is starting to wear thin. "We don't have enough men to launch an offensive against Srebrenica now," one soldier said. But there was little doubt that he would smash Srebrenica if he could, and so would the Bosnian Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic.

Troops needed to encircle the enclaves and defend nearby villages use up men that General Mladic would prefer to deploy on other fronts. The forces guarding the enclaves are so thinly stretched that they cannot stop raids like the one on Monday. "If we had enough troops here, this would not have happened," one soldier said.

The Serbs may be correct about the Muslims operating in violation of the "safe-area" agreements, but Monday's attack points more to a raid for supplies than a tactical strike. The Serbs may be directly to blame for the assaults.

By restricting aid convoys to the enclaves, the Serbs may have forced the Muslims to raid villages. What is certain is that a low-level war in eastern Bosnia is happening when the Serbs least want it. "We are tired of this war, of burnt villages, of dead friends. But only God knows when it will end," said one of the Serb soldiers, breathing deeply the sweet-smelling smoke of Visnjica.