Fires, Exodus Mar Turnover of Serb-Held Areas


In an orchestrated terror campaign that threatens to undermine the Bosnian peace accord, arson fires raged Sunday in this Serb-held suburb of Sarajevo two days before it is to revert to government control.

The fires, systematic intimidation and a general sense of lawlessness have driven many Serbs who had planned to remain in Ilidza and Grbavica, the last two Sarajevo districts switching from Serb to Muslim-Croat control, to join thousands of others in flight from the capital.

The exodus furthers the “ethnic cleansing” that has been the Bosnian war’s nefarious hallmark and dashes the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord’s goal of maintaining ethnic diversity in Sarajevo.

Local Serbian police, who remain in power in Ilidza until Tuesday, refused to patrol the suburb, telling international monitors that it was too dangerous. At the same time, North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led forces and U.N. police said it was not within their mandate or ability to stop the Serbian gangs of arsonists torching factories, public buildings and apartment blocks.

The real tragedy, humanitarian officials said, has been caused by NATO and the United Nations urging the Serbs to stay while failing to give them the protection they needed to do so. Despite about 50 fires in the past several days, the killing of one woman and the disappearance of two other people, NATO again Sunday resisted pleas that it police the suburbs, although it pledged to increase its presence.


“What the international community owes the Serbs of Sarajevo is the opportunity to stay safely if they choose to do so, and we are not giving them that opportunity,” said Kris Janowski, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Bosnian Serb leaders, including indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, have made no secret about their disapproval of Serbs who choose to remain in a reunified Sarajevo. Such a trend goes against their conviction that Serbs must live together in an ethnically pure state.

One of the principal tenets of the Dayton peace accord is creating ethnic diversity so that Serbs, Croats and Muslims can live together.

Mile Pekez, 60, struggled mightily Sunday afternoon shoveling snow into a second-floor apartment in a desperate and futile attempt to douse a fire that a gang had set. The fire was quickly spreading to the apartment above and all the way down to the garage.

One resident of the burning building, a Serbian woman who had planned to stay, watched wide-eyed, her face twitching with emotion. Another Serbian woman whose car was burning in the garage ran to the United Nations’ unarmed police officers to beg for help, but they ignored her, she said.

“Save us! Save us!” she begged a reporter.

“I want to stay, but they won’t let us,” Pekez moaned as the fire evaded his shovels of snow. “I know my house will be next.”

NATO helicopters flying over Ilidza as they headed for the nearby airport navigated through plumes of black smoke that billowed over the town. Dots of ash rained on Ilidza like snow. Several stucco houses lay in smoldering ruins, while a bicycle factory, a car factory and a school, among others, were ablaze.

Spokesmen for NATO’s peacekeeping force, known by its acronym, IFOR, portrayed most of the burning as the work of Serbs setting their own properties alight to prevent them from falling into Muslim hands. While that was true in many cases, organized gangs of young men were also igniting blazes with gasoline and other combustible materials, according to residents and NATO troops on the ground.

NATO finally pressed its firefighting unit into service, but it refused to arrest arsonists, impose martial law or see the burning campaign as an organized effort. French peacekeepers rescued several people trapped in burning buildings, but NATO insisted that law and order be enforced by local authorities, even though there are none to speak of in Ilidza or Grbavica--or those authorities are thought to be in cahoots with the gangs.

NATO officials find themselves in the position of defending the same perceived inaction that doomed the disastrous U.N. mission that preceded it. U.N. peacekeepers were repeatedly shown to be impotent as “safe areas” fell and cities were shelled.

In Grbavica, which comes under Muslim-Croat control March 19, the few Muslim and Croat residents have reported numerous beatings and other intimidation by Serbs. Along with the hardy Serbs planning to stay behind, most barricade themselves in their apartments out of fear.

A Muslim woman in her late 60s, Saheda Mehanovic, was killed in Grbavica last week by men who broke into her home after she pleaded for help from U.N. aid workers, who in turn referred her to the police. The men beat and tortured her for hours before shooting her in the head, her screams terrifying neighbors who dared not intervene.

Danilo Staka, a 78-year-old Serb in the Ilidza-area village of Vrelo Bosne who had been outspoken about his refusal to join the exodus, disappeared last week along with his 47-year-old daughter, Vesna, relatives said. His car and a small amount of money were also missing. His house was discovered unlocked, his identification papers inside.

The commander of NATO ground forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ilidza-based Lt. Gen. Michael Walker, used a weekend town meeting to again try to convince Serbs that it is safe to stay--while at the same time saying he could offer few guarantees. Most of the 80 or so Serbs sitting to hear the British officer in a frigid school gymnasium were not encouraged. Some walked out in disgust.

Afterward, a knot of mostly elderly men and women crowded around Walker to beg for help.

“Take care of us--the old, the sick,” one old man pleaded.

“At least you can control the streets,” another said.

Walker told them his powers were limited.

“I do not have powers that can protect every door, every window, every house, every person,” he said.

Later, Walker conceded to reporters that most Serbs probably would feel compelled to leave.

“I think it probably is too late,” he said. About 200 yards away, a factory began to burn in another arson fire.