Profile: General Philippe Morillon - Bosnia, I am with you: Tony Barber reports from Zvornik on the French general who is bringing hope to a besieged town

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THE WARS of the Yugoslav succession, now 21 months old, have induced a special kind of revulsion in the Western world. The fighting seems barbaric and illogical, a triumph of chaos over reason. What was the point of shelling Dubrovnik, the architectural glory of the Adriatic? Why is Sarajevo, a city renowned for its ethnic tolerance, being reduced to rubble? What justification can there be for ruthless racial purification schemes?

And there is another reason for the West's reaction: usually, a war, however gruesome, produces one or two heroes, figures from whom we draw the comforting thought that at least some good will eventually emerge from this miserable conflict. The Yugoslav wars had thrown up no heroes. Anonymous men and women have been performing selfless humanitarian work, and individual Serbs, Croats and Muslims have, at great risk to themselves, been helping friends and neighbours even if they belong to a different nationality. But the political and military leaders have seemed nothing but cynical liars and shameless killers.

Now, just possibly, a hero is emerging. He is a thin, grey-haired, bespectacled French general, the commander of the UN Protection Force in Bosnia and Croatia. His name is Philippe Morillon, and his austere looks bespeak not just a lifetime of military experience but a conscience that knows good from evil and will not let the brutal warlords of Bosnia distort the issue.

'There are moments when one man can change the course of events. Will he manage to do so? I hope he will. France is standing by him,' said the French Prime Minister, Pierre Beregovoy.

PHILIPPE MORILLON was born 57 years ago in Casablanca. Now one of the oldest officers in the French army, he enrolled at the elite military school of Saint-Cyr in September 1954. That was only four months after Vietnamese forces had inflicted a crushing defeat on the French at Dien Bien Phu, a battle that, like the later war in Algeria, scarred a generation of French military men. As a young man he supported the French officers in Algeria, who plotted against Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s. That episode is now forgotten, and he is one of only four French generals to have won a fourth star for humanitarian work.

He built a career as a specialist in tank warfare, but has always had a strong interest in international politics and learnt English and German. He is seen by the rank and file as more diplomat than soldier and he is certainly not a typical career officer, having twice left the army to take up civilian posts.

'He is very knowledgeable about world affairs, the exact opposite of a narrow military mind,' one colleague said. Another described him as 'clever, thoughtful and capable of taking initiatives. He is brave but doesn't get flustered, and he has a perfect understanding of the role of the media.'

Until last September he was based at Metz with the First French Army, when he volunteered for the job of commanding UN forces in Bosnia.

It would have appeared a thankless task at that time. The UN had been accused by Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike of being prejudiced against them, while the West watched in dismay

as ceasefires broke down and UN aid convoys were robbed by gunmen or stranded at road-blocks.

Suddenly and remarkably, General Morillon appears to have cut through the tangle of deception and cruelty and imposed a personal moral vision on the Bosnian war. Now, at last, we know what is right and what is wrong.

THE FOCUS of General Morillon's achievement is Srebrenica, a Muslim town in eastern Bosnia which has been under Serbian siege for 11 months. When Serbian paramilitary gangs swept through the Drina Valley last April and May, killing, imprisoning and expelling tens of thousands of Muslims, Srebrenica seemed doomed. Somehow it held out, and as refugees flocked to its sanctuary in subsequent months, its population increased sixfold to about 60,000. Refugees have continued to stream in this winter, sleeping in their hundreds on the streets in sub-zero temperatures without coats, shoes or blankets and in full range of Serbian gunners. Few independent witnesses have visited the town in recent weeks, but two who have - a British and a French doctor - have given harrowing accounts of diseased and wounded adults, children torn apart by artillery shells and people fighting each other to the death for food.

Georges Dallemagne, a doctor with the aid group, Medecins Sans Frontieres, said he had seen the corpses of two people who were crushed and killed when crates of air-dropped US relief supplies fell on them at night. 'The people who get the aid are the strongest. It really is a struggle for life. We didn't expect to see those exhausted and terrorised women and children. There are maybe 5,000 people on the streets,' he said.

General Morillon stepped into this hell on 11 March. He was leading a UN medical and reconnaissance team and his initial intention seems to have been merely to assess the plight of Srebrenica and provide what succour he could to the trapped population. Rapidly, the situation changed. Thousands of Muslims, including women and children, surrounded the UN vehicles and erected obstacles in the roads to prevent the General's departure. If he left, they said, they would be exposed to a final Serbian onslaught that would shatter the town's defences and result in a bloodbath. That night, General Morillon was a prisoner in a town on the brink of obliteration.

Within two days the General,

appalled at the carnage and despair in Srebrenica, had decided, voluntarily, to stay. Previous UN missions had driven into besieged Bosnian towns, delivered their aid and left. General Morillon went to the town's post office building, set up a field headquarters inside, and raised the UN flag on its roof. Canadian soldiers in the UN contingent saluted the flag as it went up, and Muslims in the streets applauded and cheered.

On Saturday, 13 March, the General went on amateur radio to assure the people of Srebrenica, and the outside world, that he saw it as his compelling duty to remain in the town. 'Fully conscious that a major tragedy was about to take place in Srebrenica, I deliberately came here and I have now decided to stay here in order to calm the anguish of the population and to save them, or to try to save them,' he declared. 'To the population of Srebrenica, I say, don't be afraid, I shall be with you.'

Bosnian Serb commanders were convinced he had made the broadcast under duress. For a while, so too were a few UN staff in Sarajevo and Belgrade, too disillusioned, perhaps, by the evil of the Bosnian war to grasp that a man could lead from the front with his conscience. But an American reporter, who had accompanied the General into Srebrenica, was in no doubt what had happened. Tony Birtley, of the television network ABC, said by radio last Sunday that the human suffering had profoundly affected the General. 'He completely changed. He became a man with a mission. He told me the suffering he has witnessed here is about the worst he has ever seen.'

General Morillon spent all last week either in Srebrenica or negotiating with Serbian forces outside. He was seeking an end to the Serbian offensive, a general ceasefire and the opening of air and land corridors so that aid could reach the town. While these aims remain elusive, it seemed on several occasions during the week that he would at least succeed in winning Serbian agreement for a UN aid convoy to enter the town. But until Friday the 17- truck convoy had been marooned for nine days on the Serbian side of the Drina river crossing to Bosnia.

When the Serbs finally gave permission for the convoy to drive on, General Morillon, who had negotiated while Serbian gunmen repeatedly fired over his head, faced a new obstacle - from one of his own UN staff. In a courageous decision, the General had accepted Serbian conditions that the convoy should travel without a military escort and should also leave behind two Belgian doctors and three UN military observers. One observer, Colonel Wouter van Dijk, believed it was wrong to proceed on these terms.

The General slapped him down. 'I am the commander. You don't have to agree but you are under my command. It is an order. We have to get the convoy going,' he said.

The trucks drove the 40 miles from the border town of Zvornik to Srebren ica at full speed on a road strewn with mines. When it arrived it was engulfed by crowds of cheering, weeping Muslims, to whom General Morillon is a true miracle worker. 'We have brought life to the people. I won't leave the people of Srebrenica while their security is in doubt,' he said via a radio link with Paris.

The convoy's 80 or 90 tons of food and medicines will not maintain Srebrenica for long, and the town has taken such a fearful battering that it may not hold out much longer. But at last something has been done.

'Thank God for General Morillon,' said Muhamed Sacirbey, Bosnia's Ambassador to the UN, last Wednesday. 'We have had many differences with him. But it seems that one man with a blue helmet has more commitment and guts than the entire United Nations.'

The Bosnian Serbs are furious. They had not allowed a UN land convoy into Srebrenica since December. They point out that on 8 March Muslim commanders ordered a full-scale offensive in eastern Bosnia, and contend that aid deliveries to the Muslims serve to support their war effort.

But General Morillon is not anti-Serbian. He says he is aware that the Serbian offensive was motivated in part by the discovery of mass Serbian graves at the settlement of Kamenica, recaptured by the Serbs last month after four months in Muslim hands. He also angered the Muslims by saying he had seen no evidence of Serbian massacres of civilians when he visited the fallen Muslim enclave of Cerska two weeks ago.

Has General Morillon gone beyond the UN's legal authority in Bosnia? He thinks not. 'My mandate was to get humanitarian aid through and ensure an end to hostilities and the lifting of the siege of all Bosnian cities. I am fully within my mandate,' he said.

His defiant stand in Srebrenica certainly has a touch of the grand French gesture about it. It recalls the visit President Francois Mitterrand made last year to Sarajevo, a city where no other Western leader has dared go. That gesture did not save Sarajevo, and perhaps General Morillon's gesture will not save Srebrenica. But neither has the West's pragmatism, political pressure and planning solved the Bosnian conflict. When all else has failed, why not try principles?

(Photograph omitted)