Sarajevo’s isolation six years after the siege

Europe Uncategorized

Little about the journey from the Bosnian border post of Dobrljin to the capital is predictable aboard the Sarajevo Express from Croatia.

The last time a train travelled this route was in 1992. It passed through a multi-ethnic country which would be torn apart by a bloody civil war six months on.

A sign in the Serb Cyrillic alphabet informs passengers they are entering ‘Republika Srpska’: one of country’s two entities shaped entirely by their ethnic composition.

If proof was needed that Bosnia is a segregated country – which Western diplomats firmly refute – it can be found here.

The excited chatter of travellers dies down as guards enter the train. "Where are the UN?" a teenage girl asks anxiously.

The United Nations’ state border service is nowhere to be seen.

The Serbian flag flying on the station’s platform leaves no uncertainly who checks the documents here. A local policeman enters our packed compartment, discarding his empty beer bottle through the window. "Enjoying the journey?" he asks.

"Such a long time!" replies an old lady. The policeman explodes in a hail of abuse and kicks the carriage’s door.

Bosnia’s awesome beauty – its lush landscape of orchards and rolling hills, with goats grazing in poppy-filled meadows – belies its killing fields of just six years ago.

A village outside the city of Banja Luka looks as if a hurricane has swept through it. Graffiti on its scorched walls spells out the name "ARKAN;" the handiwork of paramilitary followers of the assassinated Serb warlord.

Despite the right of refugees to return – enshrined in the 1995 Dayton peace treaty – this half of Bosnia, once home to a substantial Muslim minority, is now 98 per cent Serb.

Only the presence of white minarets from mosques signal passengers’ arrival into what is officially called the ‘Bosnian Federation’ – an uneasy alliance of Muslims and ethnic Croats who share the other half of the country.

Problems plague the valleys of central Bosnia and local traditions talk of a curse. Catastrophic floods have washed away the crops on which isolated farming communities depend.

Drago, visiting a friend he last saw 27 years ago, explains: "These people have nothing, this was their life."

After a 10-hour journey Sarajevo train station approaches, rebuilt with Saudi Arabian money. Donors from Islamic countries have been generous and are much in evidence. The Bank of Turkey provides cash machines and the Iranian consulate is the most prominent of all the foreign embassies.

Uniquely for Europe, citizens from most Islamic countries need no visa to fly to Sarajevo.

All across the city, the international community has symbolically poured funds into restoring places of worship for the three nationalities. In other respects, time appears frozen here.

Once the southern-most jewel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and dubbed the "little Yugoslavia", Sarajevo has been reduced to a city of beggars.

A veiled woman tries to wrench a handbag from a sitting tourist outside the ruined national library where Serb incendiary grenades igniting a fire that burned for three days, all but devouring its 1.5 million volumes in August 1992.

Unemployment here is 50 per cent, and average wages – though higher than elsewhere in Bosnia – are about £130 pounds. The cost of utilities and food is almost as much as in the United Kingdom.

Despite this the high street, Bascarsija’s cafés are packed, and bazaars in the old town are doing brisk trade in souvenirs. Virtually all the customers are soldiers from S-For, the 30,000 strong Nato-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia.

Some locals are bewildered by S-For patrols where Turkish, British, Spanish and American troops parade around in full combat gear with ice creams in their hands.

Igor, a native Sarajevan writer, is angry.

"I worked for S-For as an interpreter for three years and they are doing nothing here but taking photos and feeding pigeons."

Borjana, 23, works for a German aid agency charged with fostering inter-ethnic co-operation amongst schoolchildren. She has little time for the Western troops deployed to monitor compliance with the Dayton Peace treaty.

The accord ended Sarajevo’s siege of a thousand days and nights but the city has never been threatened since.

"Why are they hardly seen in the rest of the country? Are they soldiers or tourists? At least they could support local industries: even their mineral water is from abroad. I hate their arrogance," she says.

Another major grievance against S-For is their mixed record in arresting suspected war criminals who have been indicted by the United Nations.

One such case is former Bosnian Serb leader, Dr Radovan Karadicz, who is wanted on genocide charges. He is widely believed to be living in a bunker in the village of Han Pijesak, 10 kilometres outside internationally governed Sarajevo.

The chief prosecutor for the Hague tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, recently called the inability of S-For to arrest Karadicz "a disgrace," observing he must travel through their checkpoints regularly.

UN spokesman, Doug Coffman, said his hands were tied.

"S-For are only as effective as member countries allow, so its really a test of their political will," he said.

Critics believe Western Governments are unwilling to push for arrests for fear of a possible backlash on the ground. But Coffman believes there would be no outcry if Karadicz, a former psychiatrist who orchestrated the city’s siege, were swooped on by S-For.

"I think most Serbs realise he was in it for himself," he added.

Reports in the Sarajevo media claim recent sightings of Karadicz in the suburb of Lukovica, part of so- called "Serbian Sarajevo."

"We need precise information about these sightings so action can be taken," Coffman said. "Its perfectly safe out there," he added, as if appealing to me to go and look for him myself.

But a Dutch film crew looking for Karadicz in Pale – a nearby mountain village – were held up at gunpoint and had all their gear stolen.

There is plenty about Sarajevo that isn’t safe.