Death on the road to safety: Tony Barber traces the background to a relief operation that went horribly wrong and examines the arguments for and against evacuating Bosnian Muslim refugees

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THREE weeks ago, Hanifa Hajdarevic, a Muslim from the Drina valley in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, gave birth to her second child, a son. This week she is burying him. Her baby was not killed by an artillery shell or a bullet. Nor did he die from starvation or disease. His cruel fate was to be suffocated in a United Nations vehicle that was supposed to be evacuating him from a war zone.

'My baby, where are you now?' sobbed Mrs Hajdarevic, after she arrived on Wednesday in the northern Bosnian town of Tuzla, a Muslim stronghold. 'I was holding my baby, and people pushed me to the floor of the truck. The baby died because people fell on top of him.'

Like tens of thousands of other Muslims, Mrs Hajdarevic had the misfortune to be trapped in Srebrenica, a town in the Drina valley that has been under Serbian siege since last May. Armed with the purest of intentions, the UN sent in a convoy of trucks to evacuate wounded, sick and hungry Muslims. But the plan went horribly wrong.

Several thousand people surged towards the vehicles, fighting and scrambling to get on board. Two children were killed in the crush and several other people, including Mrs Hajdarevic's three-week-old son, died during the 60-mile journey to Tuzla.

Lyndall Sachs, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: 'The level of panic and the desperation to get out of Srebrenica reached an all-time high. There was a mad rush and stampede on to the trucks.'

The episode raises two disturbing questions about UN humanitarian operations in Bosnia. First, even if one assumes that it is right to extract Muslims from Srebrenica, how can the organisers have allowed the evacuation to turn into such tragic disorder? It is not as if they had received no warning. On Monday a similar operation also produced chaos and resulted in several unnecessary deaths.

For sure, no one should underestimate the extraordinary difficulties involved in mounting such missions. But the UN seems to have grown wise after the event. 'We are trying to come up with some sort of plan as quickly as possible to make this more orderly and more safe,' said Ron Redmond, a UNHCR official. That is small comfort to Mrs Hajdarevic and other bereaved innocents.

Second, is it really such a good idea to evacuate so many people from Srebrenica? Bosnia's Muslim-led government does not think so. It argues that the removal of thousands of civilians, no matter how grim their condition, serves to support the Bosnian Serb campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' along the Drina valley. Under the peace plan devised by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, Srebrenica and other eastern Bosnian towns with large Muslim populations are assigned to Muslim control in the post-war decentralised Bosnian state. But the government in Sarajevo contends that the evacuations are making it less and less likely that this goal will ever be achieved.

It seems an impossible dilemma. The UN wishes to save as many civilian lives as possible, but the Bosnian government believes these lives can be saved only at the cost of surrendering to Serbian expansionism.

There are, however, other factors at play. Chief among these is the overall Serbian military position in Bosnia. The television footage of bewildered refugees and the graphic accounts of human suffering in Srebrenica convey to the Western world an impression of relentless Serbian progress against a largely defenceless Muslim population. Accurate though this picture may be for most of eastern Bosnia, it tells only half the story. Looking at the war as a whole, one sees a much more complex and finely balanced conflict.

The striking feature of the Serbian military effort is how shambolic and desperate it has become in recent months. After sweeping through the Drina valley with frightening brutality last spring and conquering much of northern Bosnia, the Serbs have bogged themselves down in scrappy infantry battles and inconclusive artillery attacks on towns. Their superior weaponry has often proved ineffective against Muslim forces that are numerically larger and increasingly well organised.

Even in the Drina valley, the Serbs have not had everything their way. A Muslim offensive in December and January on the town of Bratunac, just north of Srebrenica, inflicted heavy casualties on the Serbs. According to the Belgrade-based news agency Tanjug, about 1,000 Serbian civilians and 300 fighters have been killed in this area. Perhaps that figure is exaggerated. But General Philippe Morillon, the UN commander in Bosnia, attended the funerals last week of 39 Serbs from the village of Kravice in the Bratunac municipality. He believes that anger at such losses helps to explain the ferocity of the Serbian assault on Srebrenica.

Elsewhere in eastern Bosnia, Muslim forces are fighting to cut off a road near the Serb-held town of Vlasenica. The road commands the only major land route linking Serb-controlled eastern and northern Bosnia with Pale, the Bosnian Serb headquarters outside Sarajevo.

The Muslims may not have sufficient strength to turn the tide of war decisively, but they are capable of prolonged resistance. Indeed, they could perform even better if they were not forced to divert resources in order to resist Bosnian Croat attempts to annex parts of central and southern Bosnia to Croatia.

For months the Bosnian government has argued that it would need only a small amount of foreign military assistance for the Serbian gains to be reversed. A first step in this direction was the UN Security Council's decision on Wednesday to authorise Nato planes to shoot down aircraft violating the no-fly zone in Bosnia. Though all sides have flown missions, no one doubts that this measure is aimed principally against the Serbs.

Given time, foreign support, and inexorable economic pressure on the Serbs, the Bosnian government forces stand a chance of turning military stalemate into military success. Like most Western countries, the Bosnian government suspects that Serbia's economy is so shattered that President Slobodan Milosevic will not be able much longer to subsidise the impoverished and anarchic Serbian client states in Bosnia and Croatia.

In a final reckless act, the Serbs may soon announce the creation of 'Western Serbia', merging Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia and Croatia. But such a state would be economically unviable, politically unstable and internationally unacceptable.

For all these reasons, the Bosnian authorities were reluctant to agree to the Vance-Owen maps that awarded the Serbs parts of Bosnia where Muslims formed either a majority or a substantial part of the population. This is also why the Bosnian government argues that now is not the time for the UN to be encouraging thousands of people to leave Srebrenica.

UN officials have said for several weeks that the town is perilously close to falling. The Muslims fear that the mass evacuation of civilians will merely bring forward the day of its surrender and, in the process, inflict unnecessary damage on their struggle to reverse the Serbian war gains.

This weekend is the first anniversary of the Bosnian war. It is a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, given rise to indescribable atrocities and allowed the re-emergence of the most odious theories of national supremacy.

In so doing it has left physical and moral scars on Europe that may never heal.

(Photograph omitted)