Bosnia needs military help now, not our despair

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IN GERMAN collective memory, tragedy comes by train. The doors are prised open and the dead women and children are brought out, frozen to death during their expulsion from Poland or Bohemia. Or coaches disgorge toothless, shuffling skeletons, men in their forties returning from Soviet captivity. Or locked cattle-trucks, abandoned by the SS on some siding, emit feeble moans for help.

In Serbian memory, tragedy floats down the river. The great Irish columnist, Hubert Butler, who knew the land well, spoke after the war to Belgrade friends. They told him that one day, when they were bathing in the Sava, 'a wedding party came floating down the river, the bride in her white dress, the bearded priest in his black robes, the bridegroom and a couple of friends. The huge bundle was corded round and skewered through with an iron prong. Another time it was a barrel of babies' heads . . .'

When I was in Belgrade, a good many years after that, I heard many variants of that story. All were concerned with butchery conducted by the enemies of the Serbs, the results set adrift to float a message down through the heart of the Serbian nation. Now the stories are being told again: the barrel-of-babies one was recounted just the other day by a Bosnian Serb woman to Maggie O'Kane, the Guardian correspondent, although this time the barrel was descending the Drina.

Nobody should say that all these river stories are untrue. Some of these things happened - perhaps even the wedding massacre - and today, although the worst atrocities which we know about are being done by Serbs and Croats to Bosnian Moslems, some of them are happening to Serbs again. But at the same time this scene is one more icon in the invincible myth-cycle of Serbian consciousness - the cult of the widow, the gathering of the black ravens over the battlefield - which is about a suffering nation surrounded by enemies and misunderstood by an indifferent Europe. The truth of these tales matters less, in the end, than the avidity of Serbs to believe them.

The world is now preparing to do something more effective about Bosnia, although it does not yet know what. The argument, in Britain especially, has degenerated into sterility. Those who want action to save Bosnia appeal for a small, ill-armed, peaceful community which is being systematically driven out of its home by aggression and atrocity. Morally, their case is winning over public opinion: 'Something must be done', and the Government is growing nervous.

Tactically, however, the pro-Bosnians are hamstrung by their own horror at the slaughter they witness. Too often they will say that it is not their business to say what military action might save Bosnia. This gives free space to the 'official' counter-argument: 'Of course we understand - indeed we utterly share - your emotions. But our duty is to be practical. The more emotional you grow, the more we must warn you that military involvement in somebody else's civil war will solve nothing and bog us down in a Balkan Vietnam.'

These arguments do not intersect. They are not even a near miss. But it is time that people who have been manoeuvered into the 'emotional' ghetto should escape and start talking about military means as well as humanitarian ends. These are always grim discussions. But the 'nothing can be done' line about military intervention is specious.

Some apparently easy things should not be done. There is talk about 'taking out' the bridges carrying supplies from Serbia to the Bosnian Serbs. A look at the map shows that this would mean bombing towns; there are no bridges without settlements. In any case, the Serbs have plenty of equipment within Bosnia and can ferry more across. Attacking artillery positions from the air around towns such as Sarajevo or Gorazde could be briefly effective, but if it were not followed up on the ground, it would have to be indefinitely repeated - probably killing many civilians each time. Lifting the arms embargo for Bosnia but not for Croatia, although it involves diplomatic nightmares, has the base attraction of apparently costing us nothing. But it might well change little in the short term: the Croats control most possible supply routes.

To push the Serbs back to the Serbian frontier on the Drina is not practical. It could be achieved, but only by a war on the Desert Storm scale. In that sense, the Vance-Owen plan for a confederal Bosnia and a return of expellees is dead. What can still be done is to hold the position which now exists (deteriorating day by day): to use substantial ground forces to defend the rough triangle of independent Bosnia which survives. Defend must mean defend by the use of armed force if the perimeter is transgressed, or against Serb or Croat guerrilla risings within it. The Bosnian enclaves under siege, such as Gorazde (it may be too late for Srebrenica), have to be garrisoned and - the toughest job tactically - their access routes opened and kept open. And the Bosnian Serbs, who have not yet won their war, must be denied the corridor in the north which they are fighting for, and which would complete the outlines of a 'Greater Serbia'.

Only Nato can do this. The United Nations force may have little credit left in the Balkans now, but what remains would vanish if its troops in Bosnia started shooting. And only the UN can sponsor the next stage - the search for a new Balkan settlement. It is impossible to exaggerate the disgust now felt throughout south-eastern Europe for French hypocrisy, British callousness and German dithering which have produced a policy of non-intervention disguised as humanitarian aid.

In the long term, Nato intervention in Bosnia under a UN mandate cannot be justified on humanitarian grounds alone. Neither is it honest to expect it to 'solve' the quarrel: any line on which foreign troops halt Serb and Croat ambitions will remain a scar of hatred and a marker for vengeance for a generation. But intervention to preserve a rump Bosnia will be richly justified if it leads to a full-dress Balkan conference, as historic as the Berlin Congress of 1878 which redesigned south-eastern Europe, but without its mistakes.

Berlin built a compromise between 'Great Powers', but by using small nationalities as building-bricks. A lot of hate started there, including the particular hate which fired bullets in Sarajevo 36 years later. This Balkan treaty has to start from the other end: the guarantee of rights for minorities as well as for existing state frontiers. It has to instal a dispute-solving procedure, but above all it has to have recourse to an army.

Only armed force, silently present at one end of the table as a last resort, can make sure that - for instance - Macedonia does not suffer Bosnia's fate and touch off an appalling conflict dragging in Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and finally Turkey. It is that last resort which the 'Helsinki' European Security system so fatally lacks.

No state in the region desires war. Two weeks ago, in Odessa, I watched in disbelief as Bulgarian and Turkish negotiators warmly complimented one another on their plans to clean up the Black Sea and its estuaries. If ancient enemies can agree that the rivers should no longer carry down pollution, then the time is close when they will no longer expect them to carry down corpses. Brave international action, starting in Bosnia, can hurry that time on.

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