Yugoslavia on the brink of disaster

Wednesday, October 2, 1991

By Peter Annear

BELGRADE — An incident illustrates the tragedy that is unfolding in Yugoslavia. It is 4 a.m. Dawn has not yet broken. On the line from Budapest to Belgrade, our train pulls into lonely Subotica, the rail crossing and immigration checkpoint on the Yugoslav side of the border with Hungary. We are in the north of Vojvodina, not too far from Osijek (across the Danube in Croatia's Slavonia region), a centre of much of the fighting.

This line north through Serbia is still open, but road, rail and air links west to Zagreb have been cut. Just about anyone travelling that route has been the target for one or another of the armed forces involved in this conflict.

As we wait for the usual train checks and border inspections, what was a crowded train begins to empty as more and more alighting passengers join a sorry procession down the platform. Those of us left sitting in near-empty carriages are puzzled, and we start to worry.

As I watch from an open window, one not-very-young family struggles past, shuffling three heavy suitcases bound with rope, numerous cloth bags filled probably with clothing, and plastic bags and boxes holding other personal belongings. It could be all they have in the world, or all they are able to carry.

Then a railway porter comes past my window. "Do you speak English?", I ask, using a few words of Czech that are close to Serbian.

"A little", he says in English.

"What's going on?", I ask. "Why is everyone leaving?"

"It's the war", he replies with resignation.

There is a sense of fear and helplessness. These people are refugees fleeing the approaching full-blown civil war. They have been turned back from the Hungarian border. Hungary, which lost a large part of what is now Vojvodina after World War I, has displayed a limited capacity to welcome these southern visitors, so back they go. But where will they go from here?

Since August 4, the Hungarian Welfare Ministry's Refugee Office estimates, 24,000 asylum seekers have crossed the border. Some 90% are Croatian, the remainder made up of Serbs, Macedonians, Albanians, Roms (Gypsies) and ethnic Hungarians. According to Yugoslav government reports, up to 200,000 people have sought refuge in other parts of Yugoslavia. The Red Cross says that, of 150,000 internal refugees it knows about, 80,000 have fled to Serbia, 50,000 to Croatia and others to Bosnia-Hercegovina and Montenegro.

News about the escalation and the spread of the conflict is filtering into Belgrade. Across the desk in her rather Spartan office, Sonja Licht tells me that Zagreb is expecting air raids (they occur later that night), and in Montenegro people are expecting war. Everywhere, the situation is bad, and deteriorating.

"I believe that almost nothing any more can stop total war", she says sadly. "In my mind, the situation is becoming extremely dangerous not only for Yugoslavia — that's obvious — but for the region and for Europe as a whole. I have thought for a long time the war will spill over to other eastern European countries, and yesterday I saw headlines that some extremist Austrian politician was already claiming territory."

A co-convener with Mary Kaldor of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a human rights watchdog, Sonja Licht is a researcher with the Institute for European Studies. She has been working frantically in recent months to organise some public resistance to the war.

"I do not think this war will stop at the Serbia-Croatia conflict, but will involve everyone in Yugoslavia. Already it is spreading to Bosnia-Hercegovina, which is regarded as the point of greatest potential disaster. It could spread to Montenegro, and to Kosovo as a conflict between Albanians and Serbs. It could spread to Macedonia where, as well as the internal conflicts, there are disputes over external borders.

"Extreme nationalists are now playing their cards, and the situation is very sensitive because it involves all neighbouring countries."

The situation is pregnant with even more dangers. While the European Community has so far done too little too late, said Licht, sooner or later there will be a move to a European intervention.

"There is a serious possibility that Europe will split on the Yugoslav issue, which is potentially more dangerous for the future than just intervention. I do not favour an all-European intervention because that would signify a new, strong militarisation of Europe. But if Europe splits, then such an intervention would be carried out by only part of Europe, and this means we would be facing the possibility of a European war.

"An equally dangerous possibility is 'Fortress Europe' — a division between rich Europe and poor Europe with a possible buffer zone of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and perhaps Slovenia. But I do not believe that such a 'Mexican' border is realistic in Europe, because there will be huge pressure from people driven out of this region by the civil war and similar situations in other eastern and central European countries and in the USSR."

Are there forces which could prevent this free fall into a Europe-wide conflict? Every evening now at Terazije Square in the centre of Belgrade, hundreds of people gather to watch "alternate television". Others drink coffee in nearby pavement cafes and listen to the booming broadcast. Organised by the rightist opposition Democratic Party, this is called a peace protest.

In fact, it's a response to the Serbian government's replacement of all leaders of Belgrade Radio and Television with stalwarts of the old regime, "tested fighters and pets of the hardline nucleus of the Socialist Party of Serbia", (the former Communist Party) says Belgrade's International Weekly, which also comments that Milosevic's move has "shaken up the democratic public". This clamp on the press is generally regarded as preparation for municipal elections to be held soon, and is similar to government measures prior to December's republican elections. The decision generated a mass protest by journalists and cultural workers on August 26. The replaced media workers, who were in the forefront of the campaign for political changes under the old regime, appear here every night at the time of the evening TV news to present their own political commentary.

These protests give Belgrade an air of public political activity, and many people regard this city as the most free-thinking centre in Yugoslavia. However, because the government is "socialist" and the opposition anticommunist, there are tremendous complications associated with the so-called democratic movement.

At the time of the huge March 9 demonstrations at Terazije Square, when tens of thousands of students confronted tear gas, tanks and armed riot police, it looked like Milosevic might be replaced by an opposition that would be just as nationalistic but at least more sensitive to the times we are living through, said Sonja Licht. In that case, she said, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman would not have survived either.

Since then, the situation has deteriorated. "In March it was unimportant, but now the Chetnik party is cooperating with Milosevic, who uses it to attack the opposition. The Chetniks say, while Milosevic is not good, the opposition is worse. Although the Chetniks are present in the memory of the majority of Serbians as something they would not wish to see again, their return cannot be excluded.

"On the other hand, it is not impossible that a more open-minded opposition could replace Milosevic. I have seen some signs of this, such as a successful discussion between parliamentary parties meeting in Sarajevo and a meeting in Geneva of some opposition groups from Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia which produced a joint declaration."

Licht thinks it is only a matter of time before both Milosevic and Tudjman fall from power. She worries about how many lives will be lost before then. "People now more and more believe that the conflict will cause several hundreds of thousands dead."

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