* Warren Zimmermann was a diplomat, humanitarian and the last US ambassador to Yugoslavia before its disintegration into war.
Only U.S. Can Save Sarajevo from Serbs
It will take NATO air strikes against Serb artillery positions to end the siege
After a year’s breathing space, Serb artillery is once again firing on the city of Sarajevo.
Last Sunday, 11 Sarajevans died in a Serb mortar attack. The United Nations reacted in all-too-predictable fashion. The U.N. military commander recommended NATO air strikes against the Serbian gunners but was overruled by the secretary-general’s civilian representative. The aggression went unpunished.
Sarajevo is the last major unachieved objective of the Bosnian Serbs’ military campaign. Sooner or later the Serbs will make an all-out effort to take the city. They may try to starve it into submission, or they may pummel it with artillery barrages, as the Yugoslav army did with the Croatian city of Vukovar in 1991.
Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic intends to make Sarajevo — an ethnically mixed city with a Bosniak majority — the capital of his “Serbian Republic.”
In May 1992, he described to me his intention of dividing the city into ethnic ghettos, with walls and checkpoints, so that Serbs would not be contaminated by cohabitation with Bosniaks and Croats. He didn’t demur when I asked him if Sarajevo would resemble Berlin before the wall came down. Since then, Karadzic has never wavered in his plans for Sarajevo and has outlined them publicly several times.
There’s another reason for Karadzic’s obsession with Sarajevo. Since its 15th century occupation by the Ottoman Turks, the city has been a haven for diverse ethnic groups and a symbol of racial tolerance. It has stood for precisely the values which the Serb policy of apartheid is intended to stamp out.
There was a saying in medieval Europe that “city air brings freedom.” The civic benefits of medieval Sarajevo were so attractive that many Slavs converted to Islam in order better to enjoy them. These converts were ancestors of the liberal-minded, mainly secular Bosniaks of today’s Sarajevo.
The city was also a refuge for Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. In the late 1930s, Rebecca West caught the atmosphere of Sarajevo in her classic, ‘Black Lamb and Grey Falcon’: “The air of luxury in Sarajevo has less to do with material goods than with the people. They greet delight here with unreluctant and sturdy appreciation, they are even prudent about it, they will let no drop of pleasure run to waste.”
Sarajevo before the war did have a special appeal — the splendid chestnut trees and minarets; the streetcars trundling along the Miljacka River, still bearing through the 1970s the fain “D.C. Transit” logo to show where they had been bought; and the tiny spicy hamburgers (called “chevapchichi” after a Turkish word), the specialty of outdoor stalls in the swarming 15th century Turkish market.
Back in the 1980s, I got to know two close Sarajevan friends — Pavle Lukac, of Serbian and Hungarian parentage, and Adi Mulabegovic, a Bosniak. They were irreverent, funny, good company and very talented — an advertisement for Yugoslavia’s ethnic diversity. Pavle later became the principal organizer of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics; Adi drew cartoons for the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje and was the first Yugoslav cartoonist who dared to publish a caricature of Tito during the old dictator’s lifetime. Both Pavle and Adi died young of cancer in the 1980s, before the war through which Karadzic is seeking to make friendships such as theirs impossible.
The last time I visited Sarajevo was on a U.S. Air Force C-130 from Italy in April 1992, two weeks after the Bosnian war had begun. It was the first relief flight bringing food to a city that was just getting used to being besieged. Recalling Sarajevo as it once was, at first I couldn’t understand why the Air Force considered this a combat mission and why the young pilot from the Mississippi National Guard seemed so nervous as he began his approach to the Sarajevo airport.
Today the minarets and the market have been obliterated by Serb mortars. The streetcars (modern ones now) have been running for a year but remain hostage to the intensity of the artillery barrages. Pavle and Adi are dead, but the spirit of their friendship is stubbornly alive in Sarajevo, where Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs continue to survive and resist together. Fifty thousand Serbs, branded by Karadzic as traitors, remain in the city in defiance of his segregationist edicts.
Sarajevo has seen hard times before. It was decimated three times by fire, and it endured two bloody world war. But this is the worst travail in its 500-year existence.
It has met the tragic fate of two other cities famous for their style — Berlin and Beirut. Will it achieve the renaissance of the former or suffer the misfortunes of the latter? The answer deepends significantly on NATO and especially the United States.
Only resolute and, if necessary, continued NATO air strikes against Serb artillery positions can end the siege and save the city. The one time the West credibly threatened air strikes — in February 1994 — the Serbs pulled back their guns. Now the guns are back, and the West is again challenged.
Shelling a civilian population is already a war crime; even worse atrocities would accompany the fall of Sarajevo to Karadzic’s men. To prevent this is worth the risk of a determined air campaign.
Only the United States, through NATO, can match Karadzic’s force with superior force. Yet the Clinton administration has limited itself to blaming the United Nations and talking tough.
Fast approaching for Sarajevo is W.H. Auden’s “land laid waste, with all its young men slain, its women weeping, and its towns in terror.”