Bihac:surviving against the odds
by By Alex Portnoy
Winter is on its way and there is little sign that the Bosnian
position is improving. The isolated victories in central Bosnia offer a slim ray
of hope, but it needs to be emphasised that these have taken place despite the
actions of the UN and the EC. As supporters of the Bosnian cause know only too
well, the pressure is on the legal government in Sarajevo to make concessions on
the map. At the same time, Serb and Croat forces continue their rush for
But there is one area of Bosnia that has held out since April 1992; the Bihac
region in the north-west. Although Bihac has been the subject of a fair deal of
examination, much of it has been wide of the mark.
Under any partition deal, Bihac will be designated as "Muslim territory". That
in itself is reason enough to clarify what the area's political and military
leaders are thinking and saying. For while Bihac is not seen as having the same
strategic importance as other towns in central and eastern Bosnia, that may well
change if the Owen-Stoltenberg carve-up is pushed through.
I recently visited Bihac in order to see for myself what is going on. I was
immediately struck by the immense pressure that there is on the area. To get
there, you have to drive from Karlovac through the so-called Republic of Serbian
Krajina in Croatia. Once inside the Bihac area, it would take you about an hour
to drive to the point where Bosnian Army positions end and Bosnian Serb
positions begin. Around 300,000 people, including 50,000 refugees, are packed
into an area which they cannot leave, because of the relentless Serbian siege.
Even so, calm does prevail. Although there is sporadic shooting in the hills
around Bihac, the town itself has not suffered any major shelling since May 6,
when it was declared a UN Safe Area. In that sense, it has lived up to the name
more than any of the other five areas - Sarajevo, Tuzla, Srebrenica, Zepa and
Gorazde - that are supposed to be protected by the UN.
There are two main reasons for this. The first is the outstanding performance in
the field of the Bosnian Army Fifth Corps, under the Command of Ramiz Drekovic.
Commander Drekovic has built up a disciplined, motivated military force that has
so far maintained its alliance with the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), unlike
in central Bosnia. Drekovic is also clear about what he is fighting for. He
showed me a video of a recent speech he gave in Velika Kladusa, to mark the
first anniversary of the Fifth Corps formation. Drekovic told the crowd: "The
Serb fascists are committing genocide against the Muslim people, but we are not
fighting for our faith. Our goal must be a united Bosnia which protects the
rights of all its constituent nations".
The second factor is Fikret Abdic, a member of the Bosnian Presidency and
founder of the Agrokomerc food processing company. Known in the area as Babo
(Daddy), Abdic, who was sent to prison in 1987 on unsubstantiated charges of
financial corruption, is widely perceived as hostile to the SaÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ¸rajevo government.
Many people see him as willing to make a deal on partition, which is why
humanitarian aid comes through to the area with little trouble. Abdic is also
said to profit from the rampant black market in the area.
Opinions are mixed. A Bosnian soldier I met told me that Abdic had "sold out for
some tinned goods". But a young student said that while Abdic was profitting, "I
profit too". One thing is for sure: regardless of Abdic's political activities,
the people of Bihac are squarely behind a united Bosnia. As Bihac regional
assembly President Ejub Topic pointed out, without Sarajevo, Bihac is unlikely
Commander Drekovic shares this view, adding that the arms embargo remains a
significant obstacle. If he had the weapons, he would be able to direct a push
to the south that would threaten both Serb and Croat insurgents. But there are
no signs that the international community is about to change its position. So
while the people of Bihac are not starving, their wretched situation will stay
the same until the EC and the UN stop appeasing aggression.
Since this article was written, Fikret Abdic has declared the Bihac pocket an
"autonomous province of Western Bosnia" under his Presidency. The Bosnian
Army's Fifth Corps has remained predominantly loyal to Sarajevo, and has moved
to put down the rebellion, centred on the town of Velika Kladusa. Fikret Abdic
himself has been dismissed from the Bosnian Presidency.
Alex Portnoy is a London-based journalist and political activist who recently