We are making Europe's Palestinians: Paddy Ashdown sees no end to the bloodshed and hatred in Bosnia, made worse by the international community's multitude of failures

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BUDAPEST - On the steep road leading to the Manjaca prisoner-of-war camp in western Bosnia is a sign that reads, in Serbo-Croat, 'Za Novi Zivot Bifet' ('To the New Life Cafe'). I doubt if the prisoners who go this way to their incarceration on the hill see the irony; come to think of it, I doubt if their guards do, either.

The ethnic war in Bosnia-Herzegovina is too full of ironies for people to notice such a small one. Besides, they are too busy trying desperately to hang on to the life they already have to spend much time thinking about what a new one might be like.

There is something especially bizarre about visiting the gun positions above Sarajevo that had bombarded me in the city the week before; about meeting the sons, brothers and husbands in the Serbian camps of the women I had seen so desperate for news of them in the Croatian camps; about seeing one ethnic group subject to terrorisation and house-burning in one community but being the burners and the terrorisers in the next.

This is a war of minorities. They are all - Serb, Croat, Muslim, Orthodox or Catholic - national minorities in Bosnia- Herzegovina: which may help to explain why they exercise any local majority they enjoy with such ferocity.

The problem for the rest of us, especially in Europe, is that what we see in this bewildering conflict is not a curiosity produced by their complex past, but a glimpse of the way our peace will be threatened in future. Through this war we are establishing the precedents and standards by which the ethnic conflicts that will dominate the next decades will be fought - and we are not doing a very good job of it.

Having seen this conflict from both sides, I remain convinced it could have been avoided if the United Nations and the great powers had acted differently. Our clumsy diplomacy made the conflict more likely. Our failure of will prevented us limiting the scale and ferocity of the war in its early stages. And our present shambolic indecisiveness makes it likely that the conflict will widen, that the standing of the UN will be damaged and the killing will continue on a horrific scale.

Not only that: having failed to use our power to stop or limit the war, we are failing to protect the innocent human flotsam and jetsam who are the real sufferers.

In the Manjaca camp, terribly undernourished prisoners, who have been moved there from the neighbouring and now infamous Omarska, sit huddled and cowed, waiting for the future. All tell me (at my insistence, out of earshot of the guards) that their conditions are better than they were. To my eyes, they are still totally unacceptable. But at least, as the prison doctor confirms, they are not being beaten and are adequately fed.

For this small mercy, many thanks. But those thanks go to the international press; not, I fear, to the Red Cross, which did not expose the situation at Omarska, has not been here - the commandant tells me - for 10 days.

These prisoners, many of whom I suspect are non-combatants, are still very weak. They need medicines that, the Serbs tell me, they do not have because of the international sanctions. And they need more food than they are getting to make good their undernourishment before disease strikes or winter comes.

Nothing can excuse those who are in charge of these people for what they did. Nor is the international community guiltless. Our institutions failed to monitor conditions effectively enough, and we are failing now to respond with enough speed to put things right.

And what about those places we cannot see? There are living nightmares going on in the besieged city of Gorazde, where 3,000 Serbs are being kept hostage by the Muslims, who are in turn besieged by the Serbs. By all accounts, the condition of the Muslims in the city is bad. God knows what it is like for the hostages. Yet Gorazde is only 12 miles from the main UN presence in Sarajevo. A single attempt has been made to visit the city, but this foundered when one vehicle slid over a mine and had a back axle blown off. That was three weeks ago: since then - nothing.

What is the purpose of the UN mission if it does not insist it gets humanitarian assistance to the worst areas, even if that requires military protection? We are now told this is 'under consideration'. In the meantime, the people of Gorazde and many other towns must continue to live with torture and starvation, while the 'new world order' we are building is bogged down by self-analysis and doubt.

Or consider the refugee camp at Trnopolje, where around 3,000 are refugees, mostly Muslims. They include many women and children and young babies. They have gathered here because they have to go somewhere. Their houses have been burnt and their lives threatened. Muslim extremists pressurise the men to join up with the guerillas, so they have come here for safety. But on most recent nights the unprotected camp has been raided by Serbian extremists who beat them, rob them of what little they have left and, it is claimed, rape the women. Things are better now. Local Serbs have become so moved by their plight that they now protect the camp from the depredations of their compatriots.

Meanwhile, there are four makeshift earth lavatories. Many defecate in the open, close to their feeding and sleeping areas. The sick and wounded lie among the flies, despite the best efforts of the few overwhelmed medical workers. There is no effective cover. The lucky ones have gathered their meagre possessions together to make rudimentary shelters that provide shade. Many simply lie in the

sun.

Here we are, daily, making Europe's Palestinians of the future. The Bosnian Muslims are the very opposite of fundamentalists, but they are being radicalised with every uncaring moment that passes. And where is the United Nations, which could be protecting them? It is still considering the question of whether it should establish safe havens for refugees in the disputed territories. What is the UN's purpose if, having failed to take the necessary action to stop this war, it will not even act to save these pitiful people who are its victims?

Comments