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In Sarajevo, safe areas "just something for world's conscience'

Published Oct. 9, 2005

Divining the meaning of words is poetry professor Mensura Eatovic's passion and vocation. But in Sarajevo these days, the two words on everybody's lips _ "safe haven" _ are oxymoronic to intellectuals like her and simply meaningless to virtually everyone else.

"Safe haven? Sarajevo is neither safe nor a haven," said Eatovic, breathing hard after running through one of the city's most dangerous sniper alleys on her way to the University of Sarajevo. "We are still being murdered like animals at the same rate."

The U.N. Security Council declared Sarajevo one of six safe zones in Bosnia earlier this month. With its 300,000 residents surrounded and bombarded by Serbian forces for 14 months, Sarajevo is by far the largest of the zones.

But no one here feels any safer from the Serbian bombs and snipers that continue to kill and maim. Sarajevans feel forgotten. And U.N. field officers, while struggling to maintain a mantle of credibility around the safe haven gesture, concede that actual enforcement is a long way off.

"This is just something for the world's conscience," said Ziba Kominlia, a 21-year-old Muslim woman, reflecting the opinion of many people interviewed last week. "Now, more than ever, I feel deadly scared. I'm really afraid that no one will help us and no one will leave this war alive."

The safe haven concept in Bosnia was modeled after the exclusion zones declared in 1991 in southern and northern Iraq to protect that country's ethnic minorities from government attacks after the Persian Gulf war. The idea was for the Western allies to provide a blanket of security over minority-inhabited areas in Iraq using the threat of air strikes.

The concept was invoked in the Bosnian war as a stopgap measure to save Muslims in six besieged cities from an aggressive military campaign by Serbian forces to expel them through occupation, bombardment and starvation. The Security Council declared the cities _ Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zepa, Gorazde, Srebrenica and Bihac _ safe havens only after Western and NATO allies retreated in bitter disagreement over how to use force to stop the Serbian campaign.

Now the allies are wrangling just as inconclusively over how to impose the safe havens. In the meantime, the guns over Sarajevo continue to terrorize the population with random shelling and incessant sniper fire.

"A lot of people believed the West would never leave Sarajevo, but now Sarajevo citizens are preparing for another long, hard winter," said Sead Demirovic, editor of the Evening News. "People have lost hope. They are preparing for the long haul."

U.N. officials said Sarajevo remains a dangerous place because the military situation in and around the city is so complex.An additional battalion of 2,000 soldiers with offensive capabilities is needed to implement even the most minor details of the plan. And no Western nation has yet volunteered the troops. By comparison, Srebrenica, the first and only eastern Bosnian enclave to actually take rudimentary shape as a safe haven, required about 240 Canadian U.N. soldiers.

The Sarajevo plan calls for recalcitrant Serb forces to withdraw, along with their heavy weapons, beyond a 20-mile buffer zone and for Bosnian defenders to relinquish their weapons. Protected access corridors would be established to open up the city.

The sheer size of this safe zone would require a joint Bosnian-Serb commission just to begin hammering out boundaries and a myriad of other disputes before the haven could form. Creating such a commission could take months because none of the parties seem to like the haven plan.

"It has been declared a safe area but is not an established safe area," said Cmdr. Barry Frewer, a spokesman for U.N. peacekeepers. "We don't have the practical conditions on the ground to implement it. It requires a lot of cooperation by both sides, and politically we've seen concerns raised by both sides."

Bosnia's Muslim-dominated government has rejected the safe haven on the grounds that Sarajevo would become a permanent ghetto of ragged refugees, cementing the Serb policy of "ethnic cleansing." The Serbs, in turn, are in no mood to ease off their offensive mode and might require some military nudging to cooperate.

Despite the stalemates, some Sarajevans have clasped onto the haven plan as their only hope.

Boskovic Radojka, a 60-year-old Serb, ignored several mortar explosions nearby as she waited in a bread line. She said, "We trust the U.N. and hope they protect us, but now we have no protection. I am still an optimist. It's better to live in hope. I have to take care of my spirit; otherwise I will go mad."