Bosnian Serb Troops Stand Defiant
On mountains above capital, soldiers say they won't withdraw, are ready for strikes. REPORT FROM THE SERB FRONT LINE
LIKE a miniature model lying at his feet, the shell-battered buildings and streets of Sarajevo sprawl beneath Zoran Divcic's mountainside bunker.
With bone-chilling clarity, one can see through a gauzy haze of snow and mist the burned-out hulks of skyscrapers, needle-like minarets and steeples, the old Turkish marketplace, and the homes and apartments of the 380,000 residents who have been trapped in the city for nearly two years.
And, directly below, the stick-like figures of French United Nations soldiers bustle about their base in the Skenderija shopping mall, an easy 500-yard shot from Mr. Divcic's post on the Bosnian Serb siege lines.
If NATO warplanes attempt to break those lines, warns the former postal worker, the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) base will be his first target.
``UNPROFOR will become our enemy. This would be war,'' vows Divcic, his resolute eyes framed by a grimy beard. ``We would start a great fight. We will hit every enemy plane. None will return to base. That is guaranteed.
``We hold the city in our palm,'' he adds, as comrades nod in agreement. ``They know we can destroy the whole city in 24 hours. But we don't want to.''
Such warnings have fueled the hesitancy among Western governments to take military action. But last Saturday's mortar blast that killed 68 people and wounded nearly 200 others galvanized public opinion and diplomatic action.
NATO overcame internal divisions on Wednesday and gave the Bosnian Serbs 10 days to either move their tanks, cannon, and other heavy weapons 13 miles from central Sarajevo or place them under UN control. The Bosnian government must also place its artillery under UN control.
If they do not, they will be attacked by the dozens of United States, British, and Dutch jets based in Italy and on carriers in the Adriatic Sea that have been practicing daily over Sarajevo for months.
No matter what may be the outcome of Geneva peace talks, which began again yesterday, Bosnian Serb officers on the ground say they will never pull all the big guns back. To do so, they argue, would open their territories to assault by more numerous Bosnian troops seeking to avenge the destruction of their city.
In Geneva, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, furious at the threat of NATO airstrikes, said yesterday the new round of peace talks were deadlocked because Muslims had rejected a Serb proposal to set up an international inquiry into last weekend's Sarajevo market massacre.
``We cannot agree to removing our artillery without being able to protect our front lines,'' says Col. Komljen Zarkovic, a senior official of the Bosnian Serbs' self-styled defense ministry.
Indeed, he admits, ``We have already pulled some of our artillery back and hidden it in the forests. I think we will intensify our preparations.''
He repeats the apocalyptic forecast of a wider war that Bosnian Serb leaders warn would erupt as a consequence of airstrikes. ``The Serbs will ... quickly get support from our friends. Europe is getting involved without any reason in a civil war that could quickly escalate into the center of Europe.''
The Bosnian Serb and rump Yugoslav media seem to be readying their publics for a showdown with the West. News programs show confidence-boosting scenes of smiling soldiers hefting Strela antiaircraft missiles, the Yugoslav-built version of the Soviet-made shoulder-fired SAM-7, or manning antiaircraft cannon.
On Tuesday, state-run Belgrade television broadcasts a program in which experts supported Karadzic's claim that last Saturday's massacre was a ``gross deception'' set up by the Bosnian government with human-sized dummies and ``corpses that were already several hours old.''
This version has been hungrily devoured by front-line fighters, who insist they have never fired indiscriminately at the city, and that only the Bosnian Army is killing civilians, including its own. ``They are shooting themselves,'' asserts Borko Govedarica, a member of Divcic's unit.
Their bunker is one of dozens strung along a narrow road that snakes across Mt. Trebevic, a strategic height of shear cliffs and tree-strewn slopes and ravines on Sarajevo's southernmost side. It is the site of the 1984 Winter Olympics bobsled and luge runs. The road is a lifeline between Bosnian Serb lines in western Sarajevo and their main headquarters in Pale, some seven miles east of the city.
A visit to Mt. Trebevic provides a more visceral sense of the Bosnian Serbs' staunch refusal to ease their grip on the Bosnian capital. They do not see themselves as besiegers, despite the high explosive storms they have blasted with reckless abandon into the city. These rough folk of hard peasant stock say they are only defending their side of a divided city and land passed like family relics from generation to generation.
``My house is just over there,'' says Divcic, pointing up a slope opposite his bunker. ``We are not guilty. We live here. For us, it's not a siege. We are just protecting our land, not attacking the Muslims. The West has no right to bomb the Serbs. They don't understand the truth about the Serbs' fight.''
What also becomes quickly evident are some of the enormous difficulties NATO faces in attempting to take out Bosnian Serb positions scattered in the mountains around Sarajevo. Homes sit close by the front lines. Women and children pulling sleds or horses laden with relief supplies trudge along the edge of the road, while civilian vehicles intermingle with those of the Bosnian Serb military.
``It is impossible to hit military targets and not get civilians as well,'' says Darko Zdavle, who mans a heavy machine-gun post less than two miles from his family's home.
``If they kill civilians like my mother and sisters, the UN would be our enemy and I would have to kill them,'' he says.
A scant 150 yards beneath Zdavle's emplacement, a white stone wall spanning a tree-lined hillock marks the outermost Bosnian Army defense lines.
``If NATO attacks,'' says one soldier, ``we will move closer to the city to be nearer the Muslims. If we are only 30 meters [33 yards] away, even if you threw a bomb at us with your hands, you might still hit the other side.''
In various locations along the Bosnian Serb lines, empty revetments plowed like open wounds into the red earth testify to the withdrawal to concealed locations of artillery and tanks that normally sit in them.
``Let them try to find us in the hills, in the crevices, in the caves,'' challenges Zarko Lubara, a former waiter who fled Sarajevo at the beginning of the war.
``Clinton knows we have our own aviation and a strong antiaircraft defense that they can't see,'' he says. ``But, when the moment comes, the mountain will open, and it will strike.''