The New World Order of intimate warfare

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WAR correspondents usually depend on the warriors for the story of war. And that is often all you get. But in Bosnia it is different, and a lot of that difference is in the women's story. As witnesses, as victims, and as some of its most evocative reporters in the British press, it is women who have brought home to us the catastrophe in it visceral domestic details. It is this, rather than people's commitment to this side or the other, that is driving public passion and panic about inaction.

By last summer it was the suffering, not the military manoeuvres, that challenged international inertia. By the winter it was revealed that women - as targets, as terrain, the object of military assault - were not surplus to the war but of strategic importance. The revelations, renewed during the past two weeks, that soldiers from all sides have committed atrocities, have animated the public conscience. But they have eluded public debate. It is not - as we are told daily - Serbs, Muslims and Croats who have raped and murdered children, women and men. It is soldiers.

How then are we to think of this war? How can the world intervene when none of the protagonists are innocent of genocide and of war crimes? When the war correspondents discovered that the women's story was the courier of Bosnia's catastrophe, and that concentration camps were rape camps, two commissions of inquiry were dispatched into former Yugoslavia - an EC Investigative Mission in December, which reported to EC foreign ministers, and a team of experts appointed by the UN Commission on Human Rights in January.

The EC team asked itself the question: since rape is a common feature of conflict, is its appearance in Bosnia simply a by-product, or is it systematic and intended? The team concluded that rape was a repeated feature of Serbian soldiers' attacks on Muslim towns and villages, that it was perpetrated consciously to terrorise communities and show the power of the invaders. It was not incidental, it was 'a strategic purpose'.

According to the report of the UN team, Muslim, Serbian and Croatian women had been raped by soldiers and police. 'Rape was also commonplace in detention camps on all sides,' it said. It seems that mass rape was happening a year ago. The team had 'heard of no attempts by anyone in a position of authority to try and stop the raping of women and girls. In fact, some of those in power actively participated in it.' Soldiers, police and politicians on all sides were accomplices, if not advocates.

What is this war telling us about the New World Order? First that the West, in its rush to rid itself of the Communists, assumed that its values would triumph. It assumed that the white West would rule the world. But those values had been sustained by the drama of the Cold War. European conservatism is sliding into crisis in the wake of European Communism's collapse. The great white West will not inherit the world.

The New World Order was misled, perhaps. The West's own seizures, caused by the collapse of Communism, were initially veiled by the Gulf War. The new order seemed to be the same as the old, without the baddies, and smart weapons encouraged the fantasy that war was not about killing people.

The war in Bosnia shows us what the world will be like. Nuclear weapons are no longer shielded by the scripted, timetabled discipline of the Cold War. The New World Order means the proliferation of personal warfare, intimate warfare, with men using their own bodies as weapons, and with rape an instrument of ethnic pogroms.

The political demands for international intervention efface that experience. Neither Baroness Thatcher, nor Paddy Ashdown, nor the Labour leadership, nor Noam Chomsky and his friends, nor Lord Owen allude to it.

According to the war reporter Maggie O'Kane in the Guardian, the French General Philippe Morillon thought the rape and murder of women was all very difficult, and Lord Owen raised it only reluctantly with the commander of Serbian forces because 'it is very difficult to bring up these kind of issues'.

Conversations with dozens of women friends produce a unanimous call for action. But, we wonder, does action simply mean military action, arming more men and sending in more soldiers? How do the victims know that more soldiers, whether Muslims or Americans, won't mean more sexual terror in pursuit of ethnic, economic and political dominance. Why won't it?

Should we propose that these victims be fortified? Shall we advocate arming the women? Will we invest in the recovery of the victims? Will we give them a home? Shall sanctions be supported by a UN peace corps that recruits International Brigades of women volunteers?