Bosnia: The 'cleansing' goes on

By Richard Holbrooke
Sunday, August 16, 1992

BANJA LUKA, BOSNIA -- A trip through northern Bosnia leaves me grimly pessimistic, convinced that the situation in what was Yugoslavia is far worse than the United States and Western Europe yet realize.

This is no criticism of the many journalists now rummaging through the ruins looking for the latest horrors. Their success in uncovering and reporting the evidence of the unspeakable events that have taken place is the single reason there is still any hope at all.

Our trip -- a fact-finding mission for the International Rescue Committee -- was a constant struggle to get through checkpoints manned by an assortment of differently uniformed but uniformly ugly-looking police, militia and soldiers. Each checkpoint, except those run by the United Nations peace-keepers, held the constant possibility of detainment or worse. When we failed to reach one checkpoint before it closed for the day, two of our group carrying a large U.N. flag traversed the mines in no man's land to negotiate their temporary removal so we could proceed.

Not even in Vietnam at the height of the war there have I seen so many men carrying weapons and occasionally shooting them either for fun or at some real or imagined target. We passed towns and villages in which every house had been destroyed and -- more ominous -- some towns in which a few houses were still intact: These were houses occupied by Christian Serbs, while houses of Muslims and Croats had been methodically burned out. We drove through silent and dead towns that had once held as many as 20,000 people -- every single building destroyed.

One morning this past week, we saw a relatively mild but chilling form of ethnic cleansing taking place in front of the main hotel in Banja Luka. Moslem families were signing away their homes and property in return for "permission" to leave Bosnia for Croatia or Germany. After paying a local woman -- an entrepreneur in the new traffic -- a substantial fee to get out of Bosnia safely, they were boarding buses, some tearfully, some with hope that they would finally escape the hell that had overtaken their ancestral homes.

For others, escape will be even more difficult. While the world is focused on the destruction of Sarajevo, the rest of Bosnia is on fire. We drove along the edge of the Bihac pocket, a large area along the Croatian border where 350,000 Moslems are trapped by the Serbs. Their destruction is only a matter of time, say the international relief workers desperately trying to find a way to get help to them.

Three conclusions leap from a brief visit. First, the prison camps and the siege of Sarajevo that have so shocked the world are only the tip of the disaster unfolding here. The real outrage is the totality of the ethnic cleansing, which has been going on for many months with little international attention and is now close to completion.

Second, what the Serbs do not do with guns, winter will do: Ethnic cleansing will become ethnic freezing. Relief efforts will be unable to protect an enormous number of people -- perhaps close to 2 million -- who now lack heat, shelter and even blankets for the bitter weather ahead.

Finally, the humanitarian effort that has been the focus of the outside world's concern deals with the consequences -- not the cause -- of this catastrophe. Obscured in the debate over whether the U.N. should authorize force to deliver relief to existing victims is the fact that there is no debate and no plan to prevent more victims from being created.

Every international relief worker here knows this awful truth and grapples with the dilemma it presents. Are they, by helping the victims of ethnic cleansing, inadvertently implementing and sanctioning it?

Beyond that lies the question of whether the world, having increased its humanitarian efforts in the former Yugoslavia, will now begin to turn away? There are so many other desperate problems elsewhere, and this one seems insoluble. Or will the leaders of the great democracies, at this moment of post-Cold War promise, recognize that Yugoslavia -- along with Cambodia -- poses the first and most critical test of whether the new U.N. system will work?

The writer is a former assistant secretary of state.

© 1992 The Washington Post Company