Liberating Vlasic - Liberating Bosnia
by Melanie McDonagh
In Travnik they refer to it as 'gore' - 'up there.' It's Vlasic, a mountain range above the town, once a tourist attraction, and now the most important front in Bosnia. Busloads, truckloads of Bosnian soldiers move up there all the time. I saw one enterprising batch of soldiers making their way in a lorry that used to belong to a German humanitarian aid organisation. Some were from the Black Swans, the special operation unit. All wore snow camouflage and, improbably, sunglassses. 'The snow up there is two metres high', one soldier told me, pulling a face. 'In the tightly packed stuff you only sink down a bit. But once you get into the loose snow, you find yourself buried up to your neck.' Of course the Bosnian Army ought tobe grateful for the weather. When the soldiers made their first assault on the Serbian holders early in the morning, the mines, buried under all that snow, did not activate. They now hold well over half of the territory.
There are two ways in which this place is significant. Most obviously, it is strategically important. Vlasic has the highest peak in Bosnia and the part of it in the posssession of the Bosnian Army includes the all-important telecommunications tower. What this means is that eventually it may be possible to transmit television from Sarajevo into Serbian-held territory, a crucial turn in the propaganda war. It also opens the possibility of the Bosnian Army establishing contact with the beleaguered Fifth Corps in Bihac and dividing the Serbian forces in eastern and western Bosnia. Strategically, Vlasic is miles more important than Sarajevo, second in significance only to the narrow corridor that links territory held by Karadzic to Serbia proper.
But Vlasic matters for other reasons. Travnik is a town simply stuffed to bursting with the victims of 'ethnic cleansing'. Every other person you talk to has been driven out of their homes in northern Bosnia, places like Sanski Most, Kljuc, Prijedor: most are Moslems. The most important brigade in the Seventh Corps here is the Seventeenth, and almost the defining characteristic is that it is the brÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
igade of the dispossessed. Many, many of them have been in Serb-run concentration camps, the names of which are now being rehearsed at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague: Omarska, Manjaca, Trnopolje.
And when these men and their families were driven from thir homes, taken in packed buses to Vlasic, where they were dispatched to Bosnian government territory, one woman told me, shuddering: 'They shelled us as we went. It took us ten hours to walk to Travnik.' Her daughter Aida, who is 12, remembers the journey from Prijedor quite well: 'Soldiers came onto the bus to take people's money. Some of them were real Chetniks, with long beards. They cut one man's throat but they did not kill him. That was horrid. When we got out of the bus there were more soldiers. I was afraid for my father. And my brother. I prayed to God they would be safe. And they were.' Vlasic for all these refugees has an emotional resonance as well as a strategic value.
It is hard to do justice to the importance of these soldiers' experience in terms of morale: they have the courage of those with nothing to lose, with nowhere else to go. Almost none of them were soldiers before the war, but they have been fighting ever since their arrival in Travnik - a year of which was spent fighting against the Croatian army. To begin with they had little in the way of uniform andhad to share weapons. Now, although they have nothing like so mnuch heavy weaponry as the other side, they have far more arms than ever before, purchased on the blak market or provided by sympathetic governments. Their uniforms are NATO- standard,, some actually made in the US. And, although none of the soldiers is paid, their food is mi,les better than before, a perfect orgy of meat and potatoes rather than the watery bean soup and bad bread which were the rations two years ago. But now, as then, they are driven by something powerful and intangible: the desire to return home.
It's curious to spend time in a town where so many people have been in concentration camps. On one ocasion I was taken to visit a woman who had recently arrived from Prijedor. A neighbour dropped by. She had been in Trnopolje, a mixed camp, and over coffee she told the woman I was staying with, in a lowered voice, about rapes there, some of young girls.
In the military policeman's house where I stayed, someone had sent the family a German documentary film about the camps, made a couple of years ago. One of the young soldiers who dropped by to see it was remarkable even by Travnik standards. He's been in a succession of camps for some eighteen months; Omarska, Manjaca and a lesser-known one in Bijeljina. He sat impassive as the camera dwelt on the familiar footage of skeletal-thin inmates crowding over to the perimeter fence of Omarska, exclaiming only where he recognised one of his friends in the initial footage, and flushing darkly as the camera panned over the big room in the camp where he and other prisoners had all been crammed together. When the documentary maker recounted how the Serb in charge was explaining how many beds had been in the room, he snorted out loud: 'He's lying,' he said tersely. 'They brought the beds in for one day, when the UN came. We got plenty of food that day too.' 'Did you get beaten much in Omarska?' I asked conversationally. He looked at me. 'Every day.' he said.
The soldiers are insistent that there is more than weaponry that divides them from the other side. One of them, Samir, met me for an orange squash and a coffee in one of the town's more cheerless cafes. After a few months in the camp at Manjaca, he had gone to Germany for a year and had returned voluntarily to fight. 'I would like to be able to do to them as they did to us,' he said in perfect Grman, drdawing on a cigarette and looking at me directly. 'I'd like to be able to rape, to kill women, children, to beat prisoners. But I can't do it. I just can't. And that's what I am left with. I can look at myself and I can say : I am a man, I am still a ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ
man. And that's what they can't say. And if I did those things, I couldn't say that any more. Sure, I'll fight. I'll fight for a month, a year, five years, twenty years. But at the end of it I'll still be a man. Why do we fight? Like I told you before, we have no option. The Croats and Serbs in Bosnia, at the end of the day, have other places where they can live. We have nowhere. We have to fight. And remember, we know what we're fighting for. We are motivated. They are not. That is the difference.' He was one of those who had taken part in the initial attck on Vlasic. 'We are all volunteers in the attacking unit. And voluntary soldiers are always better fighters than those who are forced.'
Out on the streets, you encounter similar sentiments. 'Everybody must go back to his own home,' one soldier from Sanski Most told me. Another pointed to a road sign : 'Look, Melanie, it says Jajce and Prijedor. That's how we'll be going back.'
But the departure of the refugees will have an impact on Travnik as well as Prijedor; it is a town where the advent of so many deportees was an important contributory factor to the outbreak of the Croat-Muslim war, which led in turn to the departure of so great a number of local Croats. 'It's not just the people of Prijedor who were displaced,' the Catholic priest Fr Pavao Pikolic said. 'The Croats and Serbs had to leave Travnik and they're now in Nova Bila or in Serbia, the Muslims had to leave Vitez and they're now here. It's easy to displace people. It's far, far harder to bring them back home.' His remarks could stand as an epitaph for the entire war.
Melanie McDonah is a journlist and commentator with the London Evening Standard and is on the steering committe of the Alliance to defend Bosnia-Herzegovina. She has travelled widely in Bosnia reporting on the current war. This article appeared also in The Tablet, London.