Not All Bosnian Serbs Back Rebels; Many Loathe Them

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To some Bosnian Serbs, the bushy-haired psychiatrist who claims to be their political leader evokes potent emotions of resentment, anger and disgust.

While the outside world sees Radovan Karadzic as the defender of Serbian interests in this savaged republic, many of those he claims to speak for condemn his nationalist course and accuse him of destroying their country.

"To me, he is not a president but a war criminal," says housewife Gordana Kitic, squeezing the air out of a collapsible baby bottle as she prepares to feed her 3-month-old daughter.

"He represents only a minority of Serbs in Bosnia," insists biology professor Ljubomir Berberovic, poking at a sheaf of statistics contending that a greater number of his fellow Serbs have fled the country or remained loyal to the Sarajevo government.

"Who elected him? No one. So why does the world accept him as our leader?" asks publisher Gavrilo Grahovac, a look of incredulity coming over his bearded face.

Grahovac and other Serbs who reject the aggressive, segregationist course charted by Karadzic concede that they know very well why the world deals with the rebel leader accused of committing atrocities in pursuit of ethnically "pure" territory for Greater Serbia.

Regardless of whether they are legitimate representatives or renegades, Karadzic and his nationalist patrons control the awesome arsenal of the Yugoslav army.

In the might-makes-right reality of the Balkans in this third year of war, the voices of moderation are routinely drowned out by those whose words are punctuated with gunfire.

Yet despite their lack of military clout, Bosnian Serbs who have refused to side with their bellicose brethren have banded together and insist on at least a peripheral role in international efforts to resolve Bosnia's crisis.

Grahovac and other members of a newly constituted Bosnian Serb Assembly have traveled to Moscow and to West European capitals to explain their objections to ethnic partitioning, and some international mediators are now weighing their views along with those of Karadzic.

"We've proposed to all the negotiators that they at least stop dealing with Karadzic as the sole representative of the Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina," says Mirko Pejanovic, a vice president of Bosnia and president of the Bosnian Serb Assembly. "I think there is a growing acceptance that he does not speak for all of us."

An inaugural session of the Serb Assembly in March was attended by U.S. special envoy for the Balkans Charles Redman, as well as by the American, British, French and other ambassadors recently posted to Bosnia.

Diplomats report that their governments are in a quandary about how to deal with the rival Bosnian Serb faction, particularly since they find the assembly's support for a multicultural Bosnia more politically palatable than the nationalists' bloody quest for ethnic segregation.

"We support their views, but we have to recognize they have no power," one senior Western envoy said of the loyalist Serbs. "The reality is that Karadzic has the weaponry and the JNA (Yugoslav army) behind him, which is a factor that cannot be ignored."

Berberovic, who was the last rector of Sarajevo University before education was disrupted by the Serbian rebellion against independence in April, 1992, has compiled an analysis of the fate of Bosnia's Serbs. He has concluded that Karadzic is supported by only a small and subjugated minority.

His research contends that of the 1.4 million Serbs in prewar Bosnia, at least 350,000 took refuge in Serbia, mostly to escape the hazards of rebel artillery attacks against the integrated towns and cities they lived in.

Records of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, responsible for feeding and providing shelter for the displaced, suggest that this estimate is not far off. A report compiled by the U.N. agency late last year set the number of Bosnian refugees in Serbia at 322,000, nearly all of them ethnic Serbs.

Of the 1.2 million Bosnian refugees who scattered beyond the former Yugoslav federation, at least one-third are thought to be Serbs. Presumably, Berberovic says, many fled in opposition to the nationalist attacks on their fellow Bosnians or to escape being conscripted into the rebel army.

Berberovic also claims that 100,000 Bosnian Serbs have been killed in rebel-held territory over the course of the war and that at least 150,000 Serbs remain in those areas of Bosnia still under government rule.

Those figures, however, are regarded by foreign aid agencies and diplomats as somewhat inflated.

Considering the number of refugees, fatalities and loyalists, Karadzic rules over only about 500,000 Bosnian Serbs, Berberovic argues.

However, Sarajevo high school teacher Bozo Djondovic notes that not all of those in government territory are remaining there of their own free will.

"There are a lot of people, and not only Serbs, who can't wait to leave this city," says Djondovic, who like all adult men in the Bosnian capital is prevented from leaving by a wartime security order. "I still wouldn't go to Karadzic's side. My family is in Montenegro, and I would go to join them in a minute if I could. It will not be much better there, but it couldn't be as bad as it is here."

Djondovic holds Karadzic and the Muslim-led Bosnian government in equal measures of contempt. It was his objection to the nationalist course that compelled him to stay in Bosnia at the start of the siege, even though he sent his wife and children out of the city for their own safety. But he accuses the government of bungling the defense of the country and contends that life for many Serbs here has become unbearable.

"My neighbor is married to a Serb, and the kids in the street call his children Chetniks," he says, referring to the label often employed to distinguish rebels from the rest of the Serbs.

The Chetniks were nationalist warriors, loyal to the Serbian king, who gained a reputation for brutality during both world wars. Some of the more aggressive Serbian nationalists refer to themselves as Chetniks.

Because the current rebellion has inflicted such bloodshed and hardship on the country, non-nationalist Serbian activists believe many of their countrymen living behind rebel lines are less than ardent supporters of Karadzic and his army.

After the Serb Assembly proclaimed its aim of restoring Bosnia's territorial integrity and restated its commitment to ethnic tolerance, an anti-nationalist underground movement based in the rebel stronghold of Banja Luka contacted the Serbian loyalists in Sarajevo through a circuitous network of supporters reaching as far as Australia.

"If there are some brave enough to risk contacting us, we have to assume that there are a lot of people who don't support Karadzic but are too frightened to show any sign," says Stevo Latinovic, a Serbian journalist working for Bosnia's government-controlled radio.

Three times a week, the radio network broadcasts news and commentary specifically aimed at informing those behind rebel lines about conditions in the rest of Bosnia.

"We know what their media are like. We just pretend they don't exist," Latinovic says of the propagandistic rebel broadcasts. "We are trying to be objective and keep our assessments unemotional. We just want to inform people while maintaining our professional dignity. We are not aiming to bring about any more hatred."

Some of the Serbs opposed to Karadzic believe that nostalgia for the prewar ethnic harmony of Bosnia is growing behind the lines. However, others say their colleagues are deluding themselves because the force of the nationalists' message has been overwhelming.

Grahovac has a sister in the fiercely nationalist city of Banja Luka who has made no effort to reach him through more than two years of war.

"She could have contacted me through the Red Cross. She knows how Sarajevo has been destroyed. Maybe on a political level she can think we deserved it. But on a personal level she should want to know that her brother is in that city and still alive," Grahovac says sadly, verging on tears.

And if the force of nationalist propaganda is powerful enough to turn one member of a family against another, he asks, what chance do the moderates have to combat it?

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
68°