Bosnians Take Up Cry: ‘Give Us Arms, Not Food’; Many See West’s Help as Irrelevant Band-Aid

The Washington Post
November 7, 1992

VITEZ, Bosnia – When British soldiers rolled into this central Bosnian town on behalf of the United Nations the other day, they asked to use an empty school as a base for their relief operations. They expected simply to be handed the keys because they were bringing food and medicine for war refugees.

Sure, the local Croat and Muslim authorities said, you can have the school — for $40,000 a month. The city fathers offered to throw in a nearby garage for another 40 grand.

The un-welcome that the British received reflects an increasingly common attitude confronting U.N. representatives who come to this war-torn land to aid the hundreds of thousands of victims of Serb aggression: The Muslims and Croats who are trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Serbs from controlling more and more of Bosnia-Hercegovina have had enough of Western sympathy.

“We are glad that the United Nations is here, but it’s not humanitarian aid that we want,” said Muhamed Curic, the mayor of Travnik, a front-line city about 10 miles from Vitez. “We need only the lifting of the arms embargo. The humanitarian aid is a comfort for the West’s conscience. It’s not the proper help for us. Give us arms, not food.”

Curic’s refrain is heard constantly across this ravaged country, from the frightened Muslims still living in Serb-controlled northern Bosnia to the 40,000 or so refugees who streamed out of nearby Jajce last week when the city fell to the Serbs after a long and brutal siege. An exhausted Bosnian soldier who fled Jajce had a blunt message: Either give us weapons to fight, or go home and let us die alone, with dignity.

More than a year ago, after declarations of independence by Croatia and Slovenia sparked Serb protest and the Yugoslav civil war, the United Nations slapped an arms embargo on Yugoslavia and its former republics. The idea was to deprive everyone of weapons so they would have a hard time blowing one another to bits.

Western diplomats now acknowledge that the embargo has been a huge boon to the Serbs, who already had a large armaments advantage. When the non-Bosnian Serb members of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army withdrew from Bosnia last May, they handed over their huge stocks of weapons and ammunition to local Serbs. Those Serbs — who have been internationally condemned as the aggressors in Bosnia — are equipped to fight for years.

Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats were not so lucky. From the beginning of the Bosnian war last April, they have been out-gunned, out-mortared and out-howitzered, which explains why the Serbs now control about 70 percent of the former republic. Some soldiers who left Jajce, dejected and defeated, had single-shot hunting rifles. Many didn’t even have uniforms or boots.

And so, when the British troops rolled into Vitez last month, the reaction of many residents was a shrug of the shoulders. Local leaders ended up settling for one-third of what they initially had demanded in rent, and most of the money probably will be used to buy weapons on the black market.

“I think Europe is just cleansing its conscience with this humanitarian aid,” said Emir Tica, a Bosnian army officer in charge of logistics at Travnik, which could be the next city targeted by the Serbs.

Tica’s viewpoint might sound cynical, but it is shared by many Bosnians. They waited for results as the European Community and the United Nations appointed special envoys on the Yugoslav crisis and staged a high-profile peace conference in London. They waited as the U.N. Security Council passed one resolution after another condemning the Serbs. And they are still waiting for one of two things: concrete results from the political efforts or a tactical switch to military support.

Few of the items that the Serbs have agreed to in political talks have become reality. Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic agreed to silence his heavy weapons around Sarajevo, Jajce and two other Bosnian cities — but the big guns forced the Bosnians to flee Jajce and are still punching holes in Sarajevo apartments.

The Serbs also agreed to allow the United Nations to deploy relief escort teams in their stronghold city of Banja Luka. But when 200 Canadian soldiers tried to enter the city earlier this week in armored personnel carriers, local gunmen blocked the road and demanded, in the name of Banja Luka’s hard-line mayor, a $250,000 “security deposit.” The Canadians turned around and returned to their base in Croatia.

“We wait, and between each U.N. resolution against the Serbs another 20,000 people are killed,” Tica said. “It’s very expensive for us to wait.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.