Sarajevo needs more than a visit from a brave old man

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The Independent Online
A WEEK ago today, an immaculately dressed old man was walking down Vase Miskina street in Sarajevo. Broken glass crunched under his polished black shoes. In that place, the dapper little man looked frail and surreal. But as he passed by, men and women clapped and some wept.

There was something disgusting and shaming about the first Western reactions to President Mitterrand's visit to Sarajevo. Some said it was empty posturing, limelight-grabbing for the benefit of French public opinion. Some said it was gesture politics designed to make Europe forget that French policy had been pro-Serbian. German journalists, who have been at war with Serbia on behalf of 'European civilisation' for many months, sneered that what they called a Husarenritt (an individual cavalry charge) was no substitute for a formal Western alliance with Croatia against 'barbaric' Serbia. Diplomats complained that Mitterrand was going it alone without consulting his partners, in a typically French fashion.

Those first reactions read very badly now. Mitterrand's visit required personal guts, as the reporters in Sarajevo all recognised. Most men of 75, who might be expected to feel that their remaining years were expendable in a good cause, are even more miserly about staying alive than the young. Most prime ministers and presidents nowadays agree with their bodyguards that their personal safety is essential to the happiness of their subjects. They stay away from front lines. Francois Mitterrand broke both these decorums. How embarrassing]

He also committed the crime of taking other statesmen by surprise. Mitterrand's team at the Community summit in Portugal were told so late that they had to dump their baggage at Lisbon airport. At Split, a few hours later, distinguished Frenchmen were running all over the Bellevue Hotel trying to cadge a razor or a toothbrush.

Suddenness and unpredictable demarches are not new. In 1980, President Giscard d'Estaing enraged his Nato allies by leaving a meeting and flying to Warsaw on a solo mission to end the Afghan war (it failed). But neither are they exclusively French. In 1959, during the worst Berlin crisis of the Cold War, Harold Macmillan appeared suddenly in Moscow wearing a white fur hat and massaged Khrushchev's paranoia with some success. Khrushchev himself flew uninvited to Warsaw airport in October 1956, complete with his bleary and unshaven Politburo, to threaten Gomulka with tank armies - to no effect.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II is supposed to have told Brezhnev that, if the Soviet Union invaded his native Poland, he would climb into his big white plane with all his cardinals and transfer the Holy See to Krakow until his country regained its freedom.

But the closest parallel to Mitterrand in Sarajevo is Winston Churchill in Athens. He arrived on Christmas Day, 1944. Liberated from the Germans, the city had been plunged back into war as British troops attacked left-wing resistance forces in an attempt to defend an anti-communist government. Churchill, then 70 years old and in shaky health, decided to fly out in person. Hardly anyone was told. It was only in the afternoon of 23 December that he broke it to his wife Clemmie that he would not be at the family Christmas party at Chequers. Up to then she had taken everything that the war had thrown at her, but this was suddenly too much. She broke down, and sat crying in her room for most of the next 24 hours.

Comforted with turtle soup, ham sandwiches and whisky, Churchill's party reached Athens in the afternoon of Christmas Day, where their plane was surrounded by British troops. Churchill remained there for the next four days, sleeping on board a warship but travelling back and forth through the city under shellfire and sniping. His biographer Martin Gilbert records that the old warhorse enjoyed it.

'There - you bloody well missed us]' he shouted as shells exploded either side of him. The din of mortar- barrages and of British bombers rocketing Greek positions in the burning city made it hard to hear his mediation conference, held by hurricane lamp in the embassy, but he did not seem to care. On the street, a burst of machine- gun fire blew the plaster off a wall over his head. 'Cheek]' Churchill grunted.

So much for the parallels. The differences between Sarajevo in 1992 and Athens in 1944 are more important. Mitterrand succeeded: Churchill did not. Mitterrand, to put it bluntly, shamed the rest of the world's leaders by showing that something could be done and that the excuses for doing nothing were empty. In the days which followed, an international action has begun to relieve the Bosnian capital, while the will to use force if that relief is obstructed is rapidly hardening.

And Mitterrand achieved something else more difficult to evaluate, but still necessary. He showed the people of Sarajevo that other Europeans do care about what is happening to them, and are refusing to forget this 'faraway country'.

Churchill did manage to impose a regency and drive the communists and their allies out of Attica. But this was not the 'democratic' solution he had wanted, and Greece was not spared its many more years of appalling civil war whose scars still hurt today. The difference here is one of ambitions. Francois Mitterrand had modest aims. He did not try to stop the war or act as mediator or to bring medical and food supplies on the scale which the dying city needs. He merely demonstrated that one could get to Sarajevo and that it was possible to help: a matter of willpower.

By contrast, Churchill thought that British guidance and armed force could sort out the whole Greek mess without help. Stalin had told him secretly that he had no designs on Greece, while American disapproval of British policy in Greece did not bother Churchill much. What he could not see was that enforcing order on a Greece maddened by suffering was beyond any foreign power.

Anyway, Churchill's heart was divided. At one level he believed, as he told the House of Commons, that 'democracy is no harlot to be picked up in the street by a man with a tommy-gun. I trust the people, the mass of the people, in almost any country, but I like to make sure that it is the people and not a gang of bandits from the mountains . . . who think that by violence they can overturn constituted authority.' But in another corner of him, Churchill admired the communist-led partisans for their valour against 'the Hun'; he hankered after a compromise which would include them in the post-war government. As a result, democracy evaded both the men with tommy-guns and the governing Archbishop-Regent, and left Greece for a long holiday.

We have to understand that there are going to be other Sarajevos in Europe, and not just in 'the Balkans'. The New World Order means that nation-states will no longer mount invasions to impose 'peace' on other people's civil wars. That is good. But it also means condemning the victims of such wars to long, drawn-out torture while Nato, the Community and the neighbours passively hold the ring.

There has to be a European armed force to intervene in such tragedies, with a new doctrine of collective security. Sarajevo has brought this idea closer to birth. And for that, too, we can thank the little old dandy picking his way down Vase Miskina.