Suddenly staring defeat in the face

Many Bosnian Serbs believe they have unwittingly become the victims of a clever political collusion

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All through the week, as the news has come in of the dramatic gains by the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia, reporters have been mentioning the theory that the Bosnian Serbs might have been abandoning certain towns and positions because they know that, if the American peace plan is adopted, they will have to give them up anyway. It is easier, according to this theory, to lose a town on the battlefield than at the negotiating table. What the Serbs have been doing is pretending to have been defeated in order not to have to suffer the humiliation of actually yielding territory at the negotiating table.

I am not saying for a moment that this policy has not been in operation, but if it has been then it is an extraordinary policy. One associates the Yugoslavian conflict in general with passionate attachments to territory, passionate appeals to history. Passionate lapses into hypocrisy or cynicism seem, at a distance, an unlikely part of the psychological mix.

Can one imagine, as it were, an Israeli general saying: "Let's pretend to have been militarily defeated on the Golan Heights"; or "Let's give the impression of having been outgunned on the West Bank"? Can one imagine what the purpose of such a ploy might be?

If the Bosnian Serb leadership, or the Serbian leadership, is to be understood as realising that it has been already bombed to the negotiating table, why should it rush to divest itself of its assets? Why should it act with characteristic obstinacy and dilatoriness over the question of its heavy weaponry around Sarajevo, while at the same time niftily divesting itself of huge amounts of territory in the north-west, along roads leading inevitably to Banja Luka?

In times of rapid defeat, in times of rout, it is not only a matter of so many soldiers, so many civilians running away and trying to regroup. So many understandings are also on the move, so many intelligences, so many habits of thought. And it inevitably happens, if the defeat in question is the defeat of something really big, that the habits of thought have a hard time keeping up with events. Catching up with reality is not just a question of getting up in the morning and redrawing the front lines on the map. It is a question of responding to a massive assault on pride, self-respect, honour. It is a question of unlearning a whole way of thought.

We saw the process at work most vividly, in the heart of Europe, at the time of the collapse of East Germany, at the time when the crowds in Leipzig and Dresden began to change the slogan from "We are the people" to "We are one people". Reunification was on the way. It was inevitable. It was logical. And yet it took months for many of those most intimately involved to adapt their understandings to this fact. Those who welcomed what was happening (for whatever reasons, whether they were a Brandt or a Kohl) could understand it. Those who did not welcome it took longer to take it in. Some still have not.

In Saturday's Independent, Robert Fisk quoted a Serbian journalist asking, "Why did our people leave Krajina without a fight? Why did we let so much of western Bosnia fall? How come our army, which was unbeaten in the field, retreated from Jajce and Sipovo in a couple of days with the refugees in front of them?" And he said that Serbs believe that Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman had arranged all this through the Americans - that is, Croatia and Serbia are arranging a cynical carve-up between them.

This may be true; but even if it were not true, even if the fact of the matter was that the Serbs in Krajina simply recognised themselves to be outgunned and had no stomach for the fight, and that from this first retreat sprang the demoralisation which caused all the subsequent losses, the Serbs would still be searching for a reason, searching for a theory, searching for a culprit. It is like the Germans asking why they lost the Great War ("because we were stabbed in the back") or the Americans over Vietnam ("because we were fighting with one hand tied behind our backs").

Vietnam has been much in my mind all week, as every day brought news of the fall of some Serbian-held town. Twenty years ago, South Vietnam did indeed unravel as a result of a military policy of partial withdrawal. It was called "Light on the top, heavy on the bottom" and the idea was that the Saigon regime would give up the towns in the Central Highlands in order to concentrate its forces on the coast and in the Delta. But not only did it prove impossible to get the army out of the area without heavy casualties. The very fact of their abandoning the cities proved fatal to South Vietnamese morale, and in the end the North's army had to rush to keep up with the South's retreat.

After yesterday's fall of Sanski Most, a Serbian commentator was asked on the radio about the news that General Ratko Mladic was in hospital in Belgrade for his kidney stones. He said no doubt the general's disease was political, that Milosevic, who was close to Mladic, wanted to keep him out of the way for a while, so that Radovan Karadzic could be held to blame for the eventual fall of Banja Luka. Milosevic, he was saying, had never been a true Serbian nationalist - he had only posed as one for a while, and now he was simply selling the Bosnian Serbs down the river.

The fact that Banja Luka, the last key Serbian possession in the north of Bosnia, was being more or less written off by such a source - he was asking why the United Nations did not declare it a safe haven - was striking enough. But on the same programme Chris Gunness, the UN spokesman in Sarajevo, was saying that the demand for the removal of the heavy arms around the capital was absolute and there was no linkage to be made with anything that might or might not be happening elsewhere in the country.

Linkage is, of course, a piece of diplomatic jargon and you could argue that, technically speaking, what Mr Gunness said was true. But it sounded as if he was insisting that there was no connection to be made between what the Muslims and Croats do on the ground and what Nato may or may not do from the air. Whereas the fact of the matter is that the predictions of the Bosnian Serbs have come true - their defences, their supplies, their communications were bombed, and then the Muslims and the Croats attacked. Did anyone seriously suppose that the Muslims would obey instructions not to take advantage of the chance they were thus offered?

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