War that leaves no winners

Bosnia peace talks: A settlement may be near, but years of killing and 'ethnic cleansing' have changed the Balkans for ever
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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

Four years and five months after the former Yugoslavia collapsed into a brutal and hideous war, a peace settlement is within reach and may be signed as early as tomorrow night. Yet arguments will long rage about who are the winners and losers and why the war needed to be fought at all.

The most obvious losers are ordinary citizens, the fathers, mothers and children thrown into Europe's most violent conflict since 1945 because their political leaders could not resolve their differences.

Perhaps 200,000 people have been killed in Bosnia and Croatia, and many thousands were not soldiers but defenceless civilians shelled from the skies or butchered on the ground.

Up to 3 million people have fled their homes since war erupted in Slovenia and Croatia in June 1991 and spread the following April into Bosnia. That represents one in every eight people who lived in the old Yugoslavia.

In the process, the war has disrupted, if not destroyed, distinctive civilisations. The Serb community of Croatia's Krajina region is no more, ruined by its armed revolt against Zagreb and by Croatia's military revenge last August, which triggered the flight or expulsion of more than 150,000 Serbs.

Even more pitiful is the fate of Bosnia's Muslims, almost entirely wiped out by Serb militants in eastern Bosnia and in northern cities such as Banja Luka, where mosques were an integral part of the landscape. The Muslims believed in a multi-cultural, pluralistic Bosnia. Their reward in the conflict has been to suffer savage "ethnic cleansing" and have their ideals thrown back in their faces.

For much of the war, it seemed the Serbs would be the winners, in the sense that they had carved out control of 30 per cent of Croatia and 70 per cent of Bosnia and were intent on uniting these zones with Serbia. But, after Croatia's victories last summer and Nato's intervention in Bosnia, the picture looks much bleaker for the Serbs.

Not only will there be no Greater Serbia, but the centuries-old Serb presence in Croatia has been reduced to a shell. There is every reason to fear that Croatia will apply pressure on Serbs to leave Eastern Slavonia, the last remaining Serb-held region of Croatia.

Equally, although the Serbs will end up with 49 per cent of Bosnia, they will still be part of a Bosnian state internationally recognised in its pre-war frontiers. If Western governments maintain the determination that they have shown over the last three months, there will be no chance for Serbia to merge with the Bosnian Serb area.

If any of the combatants is a winner, it is Croatia. First, it has restored control over almost all its territory, with the prospect of Eastern Slavonia to follow within a maximum of two years.

Secondly, it has moved very close to its goal of building a "nationally pure" state. Lastly, it has achieved enormous influence in western and southern Bosnia, and it is the dominant partner in that republic's Muslim- Croat federation.

Contrary to the hopes of Serb and Croat nationalists, the war has not resulted in a redrawing of borders. But it has caused immense population transfers and the forced movement of millions of people. In that sense, the Balkans can never be the same again.