One image sticks in my mind. President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia are standing in the gardens of a villa in Geneva. They are engaged in friendly conversation, drinking wine. Tudjman looks like a man who knows he has mistakenly been invited to a party but is determined to prove himself worthy of the expensive embossed card, which he has in his inside pocket and will keep as a souvenir in case he receives no more. Milosevic is sphinxlike. His eyes are leaden, expressionless. The pair turn and at the same moment see the camera recording their togetherness; both blink and move silently into privacy. Strange indeed to see them friends again, however temporary and convenient their friendship.

That image was recorded at a recent session of the Bosnian peace talks in Geneva; perhaps Milosevic and Tudjman were discussing their joint proposal to carve up Bosnia-Herzegovina into ethnic slices, perhaps they were talking about the old days under Tito. What they will not have been talking about, and what at the moment is perhaps the only thing that can be agreed on in the matter of Bosnia, is the fact that the Serbs are the winners; that they are simply waiting for the prize ceremony Lord Owen is organising for them. Sizes of cantons and access roads and human rights protocols are simply so much blether glossing the success of brute force.

A colleague once described the Serbs as controlling the Bosnia conflict the way a conductor controls a symphony orchestra. In his voice there was a hint of admiration. The Bosnian Serb strategy is always to push things to the limit. They will rouse anger, indignation, fury, until enough cries of ‘something must be done’ can be heard in the capitals of Nato countries. Then they back off, leaving their opponents reeling with exhaustion. It’s a particularly useful tactic for dealing with relief agencies, who congratulate themselves at the smallest success. Every time a convoy reaches a besieged Eastern Bosnian enclave the UNHCR claims to have won a battle, even though they know they are losing the campaign to keep places like Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde as viable living spaces for Muslim communities.

The same canny style is used to keep Sarajevo on the verge of extinction. Since there has been no electricity to speak of in the city for 11 months, diesel fuel has to be brought in to run water pumps and to power generators for the bakery and the hospitals. In early July one such convoy, of four tankers and several lorries of utility fuel, was stopped by Bosnian Serb soldiers on one of the access routes to the city. Their negotiating tools were a T-55 tank and several drunks holding rocket-propelled grenade-launchers. One of the RPGs was dropped by a drunk in the course of the discussions: fortunately it did not ignite. A compromise was reached with the theft by the Bosnian Serbs of one of the tankers of diesel fuel and some of the utility oil.

The convoy proceeded to Sarajevo Airport, which is UN-controlled, and then stopped because permission was not granted for it to travel through the last front line and enter the city; the Bosnian Serbs demanded another tankerload of diesel before they would give the relevant signature. This impasse lasted a week. It took the arrival of the High Commissioner for Refugees herself, Mrs Sadako Ogata, before a minor Bosnian Serb official at a nearby barracks could be persuaded to rummage through his back pockets and discover the appropriate document dated five days previously. The convoy then entered Sarajevo.

The backdrop to this brinkmanship is a failure of political and military willpower on the part of the United Nations in Bosnia. The United Nations Protection Force, mesmerised by the Bosnian Serbs, has been rendered spineless. One of the earliest Security Council resolutions dealing with the siege of Sarajevo mandated UN troops to take control of the airport and the road from there to the city. The Bosnian Serbs made many attempts to establish a checkpoint on the airport road: in June this year they succeeded. They then pushed an earth berm into place and set up a sandbagged outpost. They man this with border police who stop passing journalists and demand to see their passports.

Pressed on why UNPROFOR troops did not bulldoze this obstruction, since they are mandated by the Security Council to keep the road clear, a UN spokesman said the checkpoint was not hampering the flow of humanitarian relief. The border police at present only stop journalists and non-UN relief convoys, he said. However UNHCR officials did not dare bring diesel tankers past the checkpoint without Bosnian Serb permission, realising that one sleepy guard with an AK-47 can present a significant threat to inflammable humanitarian supplies. Thus the Bosnian Serb border police only have to be on duty, half-asleep by the side of the road, to hinder the humanitarian effort. It’s a type of pressure on the relief operation that seems to be too subtle for the minds of the UN military. They content themselves with protesting in writing about the presence of the checkpoint.

The Bosnian Serbs aren’t always so subtle. They rampaged through Eastern Bosnia earlier this year, alternating ceasefires with territorial conquest. They shrank the enclave of Srebrenica by shelling it from the edges in, then crushing people aboard trucks and driving them to areas held by the Bosnian Government. The UN responded by agreeing to strip the remaining population of their arms and man checkpoints along the town’s perimeter. UN troops now stand guard over the townspeople as they descend into social chaos brought on by a total reliance on humanitarian relief.

On one memorable afternoon in early April, two days into a ‘ceasefire’ and 15 minutes after the Bosnian Serb military leader General Ratko Mladic left negotiations at Sarajevo Airport, where he had told the UN he was seeking a political solution to the problem of the enclave, intense shellfire began to land on the centre of Srebrenica. Over sixty people died; one UN official said there were strips of human flesh stuck to the fence of a schoolyard where a mortar shell had fallen in the midst of a group of children. Since then two other areas, Zepa and Gorazde, have come under similar pressure. Privately, the three enclaves in Eastern Bosnia are now regarded by the UN as irregular little warts of Muslim existence soon to be eradicated in the interests of tidiness.

The last ceasefire, on 30 July, was used by General Mladic as a trigger for launching the assault which resulted in the capture of the strategic mountains of Bjelasnica and Igman to the west of Sarajevo. The ceasefire had also been a pre-condition for the resumption of peace talks in Geneva. The Bosnian Government delegation stormed out after several days, objecting to the negotiations being used as a cloak for the conquest of even more of their country. Owen and Stoltenberg despatched Radovan Karadzic back to Pale to rein in General Mladic.

Using a variant of their well-tested tactics of promise and prevaricate, honed to perfection blocking relief convoys, the Bosnian Serbs managed to convert their military blitzkrieg into a public-relations triumph. First they announced that they would relinquish immediately what they had captured. Then General Mladic suddenly realised he could not abandon his newly re-won ‘ancient Serb hills’ if there was a threat of ‘the Islamic hordes’ retaking them. He invited UN troops to prevent this, and desperate for a deal to restart the Geneva process, the UN accepted: they moved soldiers onto the hill and effectively performed guard duty for the Bosnian Serbs. Nine days after the promise was made a partial withdrawal was completed to the satisfaction of the UN; 130 fighting vehicles left on the last day heading for land liberation campaigns elsewhere, leaving behind the charred remains of the ski hotels the UN troops had forlornly hoped to use as shelter during the coming winter. The UN command congratulated the Bosnian Serbs on the good will they had shown.

I have often wondered why the UN command is so feeble in Bosnia and why its response to the actions of the Bosnian Serbs has been so muted. Sheltering behind Security Council resolutions, they have consistently refused to question their exclusively humanitarian mandate. The reason perhaps is that the Bosnian Serbs are the only ones who have a vision: all the other players have merely reactive roles. The vision may be unwholesome, but it is pursued with such determination and willpower that the UN military are left gasping with unconscious admiration. Most of the military here are Nato officers trained to fight the Russians in Europe. Now they find themselves observers of what in their boyish dreams they would love to be doing themselves, mounting campaigns with real bullets. They find it difficult to side with the victims because, as soldiers, they were trained to believe in winners.

At the same time as it has succumbed to a semi-erotic fascination with the stronger army the UN military finds it can communicate more easily with the Bosnian Serbs because they talk the common language of the officer class. General Mladic is nothing if not professional in the execution of his programme. The ragtag Bosnian Government Army is made up of ex-civilians and a few former Yugoslav National Army officers; its organisation is chaotic because it was formed at the moment the war began. UN officers complain that they never know who to talk to or who is in charge. Appearances also count. The Bosnian Government Army leader General Rasim Delic appears for negotiating sessions looking like a janitor in borrowed fatigues. General Mladic looks like a killer. He wears an immaculately pressed combat uniform and a triumphant peaked cap with yards of yellow braid that combines the worst sartorial traditions of the Junkers and the US Marine Corps. It’s not tasteful but it’s impressive.

General Mladic is a master of the theatrical entrance. During the crucial phase of discussions on the withdrawal of the Bosnian Serb Army from Bjelasnica and Igman, General Mladic kept General Delic and the UN commander in Bosnia, General Briquemont, waiting for two and a half hours to begin a negotiating session. It seemed to be generally accepted that it was his right to do so and not a word of criticism was heard. Despite a great deal of this kind of subtle humiliation the UN command deludes itself that it is operating as an equal with the Bosnian Serbs. What they sometimes seem to be engaged in is a comfortable parlour politics, with the Bosnian Serbs always careful to flatter the UN, to seem to be treating them with respect. When Nato raised the question of air strikes the local UN military furiously resisted the plan, so furiously that some observers in Sarajevo wondered if they were determined to prevent their love affair from becoming a ménage à trois. The UN in Bosnia is like a maltreated lover clinging to the object of its desire. The deference shown towards the powerful in Bosnia is mirrored in Geneva, where the callousness of the carve-up is softened by the silky tongues of the butchers.

A top UN political official in Sarajevo recently asked me whether I really believed the Bosnians could now live together. Confronted in this way, I agreed with him that they no longer could. Only later did I realise I had succumbed to the same cart-before-the-horse thinking that underlies the Geneva peace process. The people of Bosnia cannot live together because the Bosnian Serb campaigns of ethnic cleansing and territorial conquest have gone unchecked, as has the general propagation of hate. The Croats were encouraged by Lord Owen to expect a bigger slice of Bosnia than demographically they deserved; Bosnian Serb impunity taught the Croats that they should take what they could get without fear of the consequences. The Muslims learned the lesson late, thinking that international sympathy was their strongest weapon; they realised recently that they have nothing to gain by restraint. Empty threats and cheap talk are the only things the international community has offered any of the parties. Now that they are backing the idea of partition, the negotiators want to portray their abhorrent solution as inevitable, necessary and fair.

There has been a curious phenomenon in the Bosnian conflict. A linguistic war has occurred alongside the military struggle, and in both wars the Serbs have been victorious. The ‘inevitability’ of partition was talked into existence before the reality on the ground ‘proved’ it to be so. At the start of the war, the Bosnian Serbs declared they were fighting the Muslims and the Croats. Those who were under attack described themselves as Bosnians and were comprised of Serbs, Croats and Muslims, but did not identify themselves ethnically. Over the 17 months of war the linguistic practice of the Bosnian Serbs has become common journalistic and diplomatic practice. The different armies and communities have come to be identified by ethnic tags. The Bosnian President Alia Izetbegovic has become the Muslim President, which has been rendered as synonymous with president of the Muslims. The UN in Bosnia has started to talk of the ‘warring factions’ and the ‘Muslim forces’, which has the double effect of delegitimising the recognised Bosnian Government and making all the armies equally guilty. By slipping back into an ethnic shorthand we are denying the presence of multiethnic communities; by failing to talk of these communities we condemn them to extinction. At the same time, if you describe people as Muslims, or Serbs, or Croats often enough, eventually they will accept the description, no matter that they previously thought of themselves as Bosnians.

The UN in Bosnia has also indulged in wishful linguistic games, though not with quite the same success as the Serbs. The UN has often talked up agreements, ceasefires and understandings in the hope that the combatants will create the reality that has been thus described. The most heinous recent example of doublespeak was an attempt to say Sarajevo was no longer under siege: it was simply encircled by superior forces occupying tactically advantageous positions. By not using the S-word the UN hopes the siege of Sarajevo will disappear from the world’s attention – which would be terribly convenient given that the future of the city is one of the most difficult issues at the peace talks. Coincidentally, the day before the UN issued its redefinition of the situation around Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic declared the siege over on the grounds that his soldiers had permitted the opening of a new access route for humanitarian relief supplies. I have not seen a rush of people leaving Sarajevo for picnics in the country, nor has Dr Karadzic yet come down the main road to revisit his old colleagues at the Psychiatric Institute.

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