Serbs Stay Their Ground on Muslim Land : Bosnia: Conquering warlords bend history and reality in an attempt to justify their spoils.


Every Muslim has been ousted and the mosque has been blown to bits. Every ancient stone of the place of worship has been hauled away, leaving only a telltale earthen scar in the heart of the city.

Zvornik and other centuries-old Muslim trading posts along the Drina River are now under firm control of triumphant Serbian gunmen who snicker at any suggestion that diplomacy could reverse their gains. “The future of Zvornik is in the Serbian state. The people have made their own borders,” insists the Serb-installed mayor, Brano Grujic.

The city and its surrounding communities are now populated only by Serbs, as the homes of Muslims who fled at gunpoint have been resettled with Serbian refugees from other war zones.

“Muslim extremists have militarily lost most of their territory and, therefore, can never regain land that Serbs paid for with their blood,” Grujic proclaims, making clear that rule over this vanquished city expunged of its majority Muslims is not a subject open for negotiation.

Such assertions--that what has been taken in their yearlong rebellion will never be given back--are universal among the conquering warlords and their surrogates in civil administration; they bend both history and reality in an attempt to justify and protect their spoils.


“There were never any mosques in Zvornik,” Grujic tells visitors, who he knows have seen otherwise.

A quarter-century of census figures showing Zvornik to be more than 60% Muslim are also rejected by the new rulers as “forged,” said the mayor, who accuses Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats of having plotted for decades against the Serbs.

Under the proposed peace plan drafted by Western mediators Cyrus R. Vance and Lord Owen, Zvornik would be one of many “ethnically cleansed” eastern Bosnian cities restored to the Sarajevo government’s control. The Vance-Owen proposal for bringing peace to shattered Bosnia would carve the republic into 10 ethnically based provinces and distribute them among warring factions, capitulating to the Serbian quest for ethnic segregation. The proposal has been accepted by Muslim and Croat leaders but not by the Serbs.

Despite Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic’s agreement to support the Vance-Owen peace plan, the Muslim-led government continues to oppose ethnic partitioning of the republic where Serbs and Muslims were thoroughly mixed before the war.

But the past year’s deadly clashes over territory have unleashed such hostility among all peoples that many now concede they are unlikely to live together again.

Serbs have won the ideological battle by forcing Vance and Owen to accept, however reluctantly, their goal of creating ethnically pure territory, which Serbian nationalist forces want to annex to the emerging state of Greater Serbia; their poets and politicians have dreamed of it since the Middle Ages.

But the rebel victory goes beyond extracting Western acceptance of their fait accompli on the issue of ethnic division. After a year of artillery attacks and intimidation, including gang rapes and executions, the rebels have gained exclusive control over 70% of Bosnian territory and have taken steps to ensure that none of it ever reverts to another’s control.

Not a soul in Zvornik, or in other “cleansed” cities like Foca, Visegrad and Doboj, expresses the fear that their territorial advances could be reversed by diplomacy or Western forces. Nor do they feel regret over the fate of their ousted Muslim neighbors or the cultural treasures destroyed to erase evidence that anyone non-Serb was ever here.

Deeming all eastern Bosnian territory the legitimate spoils of a successful war, both the governing gunmen and Serbian civilians excuse the brutality of their conquest with assertions that Muslims had to be evicted to ensure the survival and prosperity of the Serbs.

“Muslims are more prone to commit crimes,” insists Zdravko Ilic, a former functionary in Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s Serbian Democratic Party who was recently installed here as minister of economic affairs. “With people like these,” he says scornfully of the Muslims, “not a single society would be able to progress.”

Although Zvornik was one of the first eastern Bosnian cities to fall last April when Serbs revolted against the republic’s vote for independence, local Serbs have revised their recollection of events.

“This always was and always will be Serbian land,” says a radio journalist named Zoran, dismissing the Vance-Owen peace plan as unacceptable because it fails to recognize the rebels’ rights to all they have taken. “There is no way at all it will be accepted. Wishes are one thing and realities another.”

Dragan Spasojevic, a former policeman, says the armed takeover in which he participated was a justified fight against being separated from other Serbs in former Yugoslav republics. He says the war began because Muslims needed more housing and land to accommodate their higher birthrate, thereby endangering the property of Serbs. “It was clear they couldn’t continue to live on only 30% of the territory,” he says, reciting the oft-aired contention of Karadzic that Serbs own two-thirds of Bosnian land.

But Karadzic claims “ownership” of entire counties solely if the Serbian population there exceeds 50%. Because Serbs tended to live in the countryside, where provinces were mostly made up of farms, the areas where they were most numerous were physically larger than the urban centers where most Muslim Slavs lived.

Serbs made up 31% of Bosnia’s 4.4 million citizens before the war, while the Muslims accounted for 44% and Croats, who live highly concentrated in the republic’s southwest, were 17% of the population.

By casting their conquest of eastern Bosnia as an action for survival, Serbs have already justified, at least in their own minds, their intensified offensive for the last few Muslim enclaves in the region.

After holding up humanitarian aid convoys for months to starve Muslim defenders, Serbian forces took the towns of Cerska and Konjevic Polje earlier this month and are poised to overrun Srebrenica and drive out its 60,000 beleaguered people.

“Srebrenica is already part of the Republic of Srpsko,” Grujic says, referring to Serb-conquered territory destined for annexation to Greater Serbia. “There are some (Muslim) rebels who still do not recognize the authority of our government, but we’ll soon clear them out.”

The fall of Srebrenica and the tiny holdout village of Zepa that is also under concerted attack would leave only three widely separated Muslim enclaves in Bosnia: Tuzla, Bihac and Sarajevo, all of which have recently come under stepped-up bombardment.

Will Karadzic’s nationalist forces move on Tuzla once the rest of eastern Bosnia is thoroughly cleansed? “It depends on who is stronger,” Grujic replies. “We’re making war here, not love. Whoever wins territory gets to keep it.”

Tuzla and surrounding government-held communities are home to 700,000 people, many of them Muslim refugees from areas earlier taken by the Serbs. The city is thought to be well defended by its mixed but mostly Muslim population. But transport and communication lines with Sarajevo are often disrupted by both Serbian and Croatian forces to the south.

Local Serbs, like lawyer Stevo Radic, also argue that there should be an ethnic division of Sarajevo, which according to the Vance-Owen proposal would be the only integrated region preserved in Bosnia. “Sarajevo is the largest Serbian city in Bosnia,” Radic says, unilaterally changing the rules for determining control from majority population to anyplace where Serbs live.

Belgrade-based diplomats say they are perplexed by the chasm between the Bosnian Serbs’ equivocal pose at peace talks in New York and their unabashed campaign to take more of the territory Vance and Owen have designated for the Muslims.

“I don’t see the point of haggling over lines on a map the Serbs have made clear they will pay no attention to,” said one envoy critical of the appeasing tack taken by the mediators.

“What they should want to do is create a U.N. protectorate, disarm all factions, ban all current political leaders and occupy Bosnia until they can teach these people democracy,” the envoy said. “But Bosnia isn’t considered important enough (by the international community) to warrant an action of this size and expense.”

Muslims Driven Out

Serbian forces have driven Muslims from many eastern Bosnian cities, leaving only a handful of Muslim enclaves across the country. A proposed peace plan would return many of the “ethnically cleansed” cities to the Sarajevo government’s control.