Sarajevo's mayor: 'Lift the embargo!'


Early in 1995, citizens of Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, marked the 1000th day of the siege of their city by the Bosnian Serb army led by Radovan Karadzic. Dr TARIK KUPUSOVIC, mayor of Sarajevo, recently visited Sydney to raise material and moral support. He spoke to Green Left Weekly's JENNIFER THOMPSON.

What is the situation for the people of Sarajevo and the refugees who have fled there?

The 120,000 refugees in Sarajevo are mostly from surrounding settlements, which are under Serb occupation and where ethnic cleansing was carried out. The remaining original inhabitants number about 240,000-250,000. In total in Sarajevo now are about 360,000 people. There were nearly half a million before the war.

There are 1.2 million refugees from Bosnia who have fled, and it is our estimate that with the best situation, only 70% will come back.

The situation in Sarajevo has been the same for the last year. At the end of February last year, when the ultimatum for heavy weapons was implemented, shelling and sniping in the city for the first month was quiet. Then some sniping and shelling started but it is still relatively calm for Sarajevo compared to the earlier situation. In the first two years of the war, there were more than 100 people wounded and 10 to 15 killed daily. Now three or four people are wounded in a week and one or two killed.

However, the psychological situation is very difficult. Nobody has any paid work. There are only a very small number of people who are working for UNPROFOR [UN Protective Force], foreigners in fact, who are paid. For the functioning of the city it is necessary to have more than 20,000 workers for water supply, public transport, gas, garbage — essentially 14 city functions, and the university and bank. Their only motivation is to work and hope for a better future. They are not paid.

Humanitarian aid comes through UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees), a few main humanitarian organisations and some international organisations like the Red Cross, and American International Rescue Committee. They also send money for repairs.

When I was elected mayor in April last year, hopes were very high because it was the start of relative peace, and we started the restoration of essential services. In two or three months about 6000-7000 people came back to the city from Croatia and other places. Most returned to reunite families, so the mothers and the children came back. One of the tragedies of the war in Sarajevo was the targeted destruction of the family.

But then they attacked the two UNPROFOR convoys. Now everybody feels that we are all waiting for something. We are defending the city, defending our lives and working for survival but waiting for some main decisions from the international community. For Bosnia the "international community" is the five main countries in the UN Security Council which suggested the peace plan six or seven months ago. We accepted it, the Croatian government accepted it, Milosevic accepted for Serbia, but Karadzic's Serbs — "one party" in Bosnia-Hercegovina — didn't accept it.

Karadzic controls 70% of territory, which is now roughly 98% populated by Serbs, where before the war it was 40-45% Serbs. In the whole of Bosnia 33% of inhabitants were Serbs, and now they hold 70% of territory. They have a lot of refugees who don't support Karadzic and his barbaric policy of destroying the cities where Croatians, Serbs and Bosniacs lived thinking everybody can live together with some small religious differences.

It is obvious that the Bosnian army is now much more organised and stronger than a year ago. The army has practically no heavy weapons, but it's a very respectable army now with more than 200,000 soldiers highly motivated, with good uniforms but only rifles and small weapons.

Why do you think the US and the Europeans are not lifting the arms embargo?

It's probably due to the relationship between the US, Britain and France, because UNPROFOR troops in Bosnia are mostly French and Britons. The policy of Britain and France was for a very long period very imperialistic. They see from the last two years that if they have a strong Serbia — ignoring human rights, concentration camps, raping women, killing children — there will be a stable situation with Serbia as a strong policeman in the region.

They want this to counter problems also with Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Greeks, Turks, Islamic influences. This is a policy that is not human or democratic.

America is a democratic country, and American people care about this war. They don't understand how somebody can attack people and there is an embargo on these people preventing them from defending themselves. At a higher level they have a different point of view. President Clinton has talked about civil war but it can't be a civil war when it's one army attacking civilians. It's a war against civilians, not a civil war.

The CIA announced two weeks ago that at least 90% of all human rights violations were organised by Milosevic and Karadzic, implemented by the soldiers, but organised systematically through concentration camps and ethnic cleansing.

Almost 200,000 civilians in Bosnia were killed on the Bosnian side, and less than 10,000 soldiers. On the Serb side some estimations are that nearly 100,000 soldiers died, killed in fighting. With artillery they are killing civilians, in direct fighting our army wins but only in small places because without artillery and tanks, strategically it's not possible to have a long-term success against this very well equipped army of professionals. We have practically no professionals.

In Sarajevo practically all soldiers are at the same time civilians. Because there are no barracks the boys and fathers have one or two weeks on the defence of the front line, then one week resting with their family to survive as a family. Or they serve on a daily basis depending on where they are living and where their unit is. Only a small number of well-trained people are now in a specifically organised elite of the best units.

However, we are searching for peace, maybe not a just peace, as it is not realistic from the point of view of the current situation, but in the long term a just peace.

If the Hague International Court eliminates just a small portion of war criminals, then others will flee the field because there are witnesses who can recognise them. Such action is much fairer than when the international community is neutral. It is not the role of the international community to be neutral; it has to be fair. Because neutrality between one side which has ten or a hundred times more power, and the other which is civilians, means you are always on the side of the Serbia.

Governments talk about neutrality and instead of real action they send humanitarian aid, not enough but just to survive. In Bihac and other places, Karadzic refused passage for convoys because he said he needed the goods. Sarajevo airport is closed then open, then closed again, convoys come in or don't come in — everything depends. There is no adequate response to the behaviour of the much stronger aggressor. But in the long term justice is on our side.

So you're saying that most Bosnians would support some of the peace plans that have been put forward even though they're not fair?

Yes. If they lift the embargo even if just on paper, then the negotiations can be serious, because it's two sides with equal power. Lifting of the arms embargo means if they really delivered the arms, then for some time of course we'll win, but this is not a solution. The realistic solution is that we will gain a position of some equilibrium to Karadzic, and start to have serious negotiations.

The main two rules for peace are establishment of some boundaries for the internationally recognised Bosnia and a minimum of human rights, on paper and in practice.

What can people do outside to be in solidarity with the people of Bosnia?

This is one of the most important reasons that I am in Australia, and that I was in the United States last week. Ordinary citizens recognise the situation of ordinary Sarajevans. We have established a solidarity network of cities that recognise what is meant by barbarism — destroying the city as a place which is the source of democracy, source of common life, of exchanging ideas of trade, of universities, of everything which is positive. In fact citizens of Sarajevo are defending not only their lives but the principles of the city.

Our aim is the cities' support for Sarajevo. I am talking about Sarajevo because it is the capital and the key to Bosnia. In Sarajevo and in a few cities we have saved the good relations between Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews, all people who are living together. The villages are more or less mono-ethnic throughout Bosnia; that's how Karadzic — with strong propaganda and through the church — organised people from the villages to attack the city. That's the reason that I expect moral, and public support, humanitarian aid and then in the future commercial collaboration.

About 50% of Sarajevan experts, university professors and skilled workers, are in the city. The potential of these people is enormous in collaboration with people from outside. But of course the first rule is peace, and re-establishment of communications.

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