Letter: Impossibility of delivering aid to Bosnia without the help of the Serbs

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The Independent Online
Sir: I have, in recent weeks, read with interest and alarm the views expressed in the columns of the Independent concerning Bosnia. Having served as a soldier in Vitez and having that fairly rare commodity for an infantry soldier, a degree in Serbo-Croat, I would like to reply.

First, it should always be remembered how aid reaches Muslim-held Bosnia. The vast majority of that aid passes through Serb-held territory and through Serbian front lines, with the remainder of the aid arriving via roads or airfields that are covered by Serbian artillery. Thus the entire aid effort for the Muslims is dependent on Serbian goodwill.

It is essential, therefore, that the UN forces maintain good relations with the Serbs who they have to deal with every day in order to ensure the flow of aid. However, every piece of bellicose anti-Serb rhetoric that emanates from Washington or Brussels damages those relations and results in cancelled and delayed convoys and increased hardship for Muslim refugees trying to flee Serb-held Bosnia. 'Fine,' say those far removed from the conflict in their ivory towers. 'Bomb the Serbs a bit to make them see reason.' It is not so simple.

The Serbian commanders I talked to always stressed one point to me. As soon as the first aircraft attack, say, an artillery piece, happens, then all the guns will be moved to schools or hospitals. Muslim civilians who still live in Serbian areas will be forced to live in tents pitched around the guns. All Serbian supply and tank convoys will be escorted by busloads of Muslim civilians. What pilot is going to bomb one Serbian gun or one Serbian tank and kill 50 women and children? Bomb the bridges and the roads, then, say the 'experts'. And then you bomb exactly the same supply lines that the UN uses to get aid to central Bosnia.

To think offensive aircraft can change anything in Bosnia is fatuous nonsense. They are useless. They will not even enforce the 'no-fly zone' because the vast majority of the violations are by Muslim aircraft.

''Fight through the land convoys' if necessary, says Sir Antony Duff (Letter, 29 October). But if any side, be it Serbian, Muslim or Croatian, wants to stop convoys then it will stop convoys. If they blow up the roads or lay mines across them, then the roads are closed, and no amount of troops or aircraft can reopen them. A road is closed until negotiations ensure that engineers can repair the road or clear the mines without being fired at. 'Fighting' does not repair an impassable obstacle.

Finally, I have to say this. Throughout the year I spent in central Bosnia, I was reminded of the words of Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, that fine Canadian who was commandant of the UN forces in Sarajevo. He would, he said, have felt that his job had been worthwhile if someone, anyone, in Bosnia had said 'thank you'. I, and other British soldiers, felt exactly the same. The British soldier takes enormous risks to ensure that aid gets through to those who need it. Yet he is vilified by all three sides as guilty of helping the 'other' side more.

Someone once said to me when I was a student in Sarajevo before the war: 'You are a Westerner, you are not wanted here'. The same is true today. Do we really want to send more troops to risk, and in some cases lose, their lives in a land where they are not welcome?

Yours,

I. R. THORNTON

Centre for Russian and East European Studies

Birmingham University

The writer is an ex-Sergeant, 1st Battalion The Green Howards.

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