Premiers of 2 Muslim Nations Visit Sarajevo
The Muslim world’s two leading stateswomen braved artillery fire during a visit here Wednesday to show solidarity with besieged civilians and appeal to fellow world leaders to defend the European ideals that would be destroyed by a division of Bosnia.
Prime Ministers Tansu Ciller of Turkey and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan were whisked through this shattered Bosnian capital in helmets, flak jackets and armored vehicles on a five-hour tour that took them from the halls of the presidency to the bedsides of wounded children.
“The world seems to have forgotten about the Bosnian people,” said Ciller, who along with Bhutto appealed for a lifting of the U.N. arms embargo that has hobbled the Muslim-led government here in its effort to defend Bosnia-Herzegovina against nationalists armed and supported by Serbia and Croatia.
Bhutto also said air strikes against rebels besieging civilian communities should be “urgently considered” by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations to break the stranglehold that nationalist forces have on Sarajevo and other towns and cities.
“It is shocking that this appalling human tragedy is being enacted in the heart of a continent which prides itself on its commitment to human rights and respect for human dignity,” Ciller and Bhutto said in a joint declaration. They added, “A sovereign and independent state is being violently dismembered along racial lines and genocide perpetrated against a peaceful and enlightened people.”
While claiming to be visiting more as sympathetic mothers than as politicians, the stateswomen delivered the same message at every stop on their whirlwind itinerary: The West has turned its back on the suffering in Bosnia and is seeking a quick-fix solution that would reward Serbian rebel aggression.
Their visit coincides with growing indications from some Western countries that they have tired of the costly and dangerous humanitarian mission in Bosnia, where 2 million have been made homeless and 250,000 reported killed or missing in the conflict.
Britain, France, Spain and Canada have threatened to withdraw their troops from the U.N. mission here unless there is a negotiated settlement by spring; this has stepped up diplomatic pressure on Bosnia’s government to capitulate to the attackers’ terms for peace.
But Ciller and Bhutto repeatedly warned against forcing an unjust solution, claiming it would encourage nationalist aggression and further shackle what they said is the Bosnian people’s “just struggle” to protect the country’s territorial integrity.
The proposed division of Bosnia that has won U.N. and European Union backing at Geneva-based peace talks was drafted by Serbian and Croatian rebel leaders. It would leave the Sarajevo government in control of heavily damaged and isolated enclaves covering about one-third of the country, while the Serbian rebels who sparked the war with an armed rebellion in 1992 would be granted sovereignty over half of Bosnia and have the right to annex that territory to an emerging Greater Serbia.
Ciller and Bhutto arrived on a U.N. flight from the Croatian capital of Zagreb amid unusual quiet on a clear day, but they were soon exposed to the daily cacophony of booming artillery from the Serb-held high ground surrounding the city. None of the shells landed near the visiting entourage.
After meeting with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, the prime ministers toured the children’s ward of beleaguered Kosevo Hospital.
“We are here less as prime ministers and more as mothers, as daughters, as wives, as women, to show solidarity with the suffering people of Bosnia and also to draw world attention to this place where so much suffering is taking place,” Bhutto told journalists.
Both women appeared critical of the international community’s current approach to the Bosnian crisis, which has been aimed at feeding and caring for civilian victims while doing little to stop the fighting. Virtually all of the population left in Bosnia is now dependent on humanitarian aid that only sporadically makes its way across more than 1,000 miles of meandering battlefront.
“While we go on searching for peace, civilians are being killed,” Ciller said in an apparent reprimand to Western-mediated peace talks in Geneva that have dragged on without result for 18 months. “We need to draw the attention of the world one more time to this moral issue. Values are no good unless we defend them.”
Bhutto suggested that the Geneva talks, scheduled to resume next Thursday, have become “simply an excuse to buy time.”
If the international community is not prepared to end the fighting, it should at least lift the arms embargo to allow Bosnia to defend itself, she said.
Ciller described Sarajevo as a bastion of the European ideal of different religions, nationalities and cultures living together in peace and exhibiting “global” values worthy of the international community’s heartfelt support.
Ciller’s participation in the trip, which may have been aimed in part at shaming the Islamic world into stronger support for Bosnia, was watched warily by the Serbs, who continue to resent Turkey for the Ottoman Empire’s 500-year occupation of the Balkans.
Bhutto may have gained some political capital from the Bosnian visit. Three months into her second stint as Pakistan’s head of government, she has been under unrelenting attack by opposition leader Nawaz Sharif. Himself a former prime minister, he accuses her of failing miserably to defend Muslim interests worldwide.
Sharif gained an advantage over Bhutto by coming to Bosnia a month ago himself and meeting Muslim families in the war zone whose lives have been devastated by the fighting. His trip received lavish exposure in many of Pakistan’s media, implicitly raising the question of what Bhutto was doing to ease her fellow Muslims’ sufferings.
Times staff writer John-Thor Dahlburg in New Delhi contributed to this report.