Behind Serb lines

The recent capture of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in Belgrade has revived memories of t

The New Statesman

2 June 1995

For a war-drained city in an internationally isolated statelet, Banja Luka keeps an upbeat face. Nestled between two gentle mountain ranges, its broad, tree-lined streets and pastel facades have a prosperous, distinctly central European flair. Perhaps a bit snobbishly, Banja Lukans always emphasised their affinity to the cultural sphere of Mitteleuropa rather than the Balkans.

But today in the Bosnian Serbs' self-styled Republika Srpska (RS), Banja Luka is no longer renowned as a well-off university town or as a quiet multinational city of cafes and hot springs. The largest city in Bosnian Serb-held territory now carries an ignoble reputation as the capital of ethnic cleansing. Before the war, its population was roughly half Serb and half Muslim and Croat. Today, there is only a tiny fraction of non-Serbs in the city - and every month more leave.

Banja Luka's reputation as a symbol for the ethnic policies of the Bosnian Serb leadership is one reason that foreign journalists are strongly discouraged from visiting the region. After securing a press card, you are sat down for an informal little chat with Branko, a gruff, barrel-chested Serb in his mid-thirties. Branko explains "the Serb side" of ethnic cleansing (Muslims and Croats want to leave, we just help them), the siege of Sarajevo (the Muslims and Croats broke the ceasefire) and the Contact Group peace plan, which the Serbs refuse to sign (this is a war that we didn't even start, why should we give up land we won?).

As inflated as the term "fascism" is throughout the Balkans (everybody is "fighting fascism"), RS has all the characteristics of the real thing: concentration camps, extensive paramilitary and secret police forces, and an extreme clerical-nationalist ideology. The Bosnian Serbs, even those who defend the regime, know very well what kind of a state they live in. Nobody wants to be seen talking with a foreigner.

The former Muslim villages of RS are ghost towns, the houses picked clean of doors, windows, anything looters could carry with them. In Banja Luka, the most striking physical evidence of ethnic cleansing is the empty, rock-strewn lots that stand out like scars along shady shrub-lined streets. It was here that some of the oldest, most elegant mosques in the Balkans stood before Serbian extremists dynamited them. There is not a minaret to be found anywhere in Serb-controlled Bosnia.

The first wave of ethnic cleansing, which began with the outbreak of the war in April 1992, relied on bombings, murders, rapes and arson to force Muslims and Croats from their homes. It is now in an "end phase" - the term foreign observers have used to designate the more subtle forms of intimidation. Muslim and Croat men, for example, are conscripted as labourers, often on the front line. As the authorities know, most would rather leave their homes than risk their lives digging trenches on the "hot fronts".

At an informal flea market along a crumbling wall of the old city fortress, Muslims, Croats and gypsies gather to sell their last possessions to get the money to leave. On old blankets, they display record collections, tool sets, doorknobs, televisions, anything they can't take with them. Six gypsy women with patchwork dresses and headscarves squat in a circle, rolled-up cigarettes bobbing from their cracked lips. "One day some toughs came and said to us, 'What are you doing here? Get lost or you'll be sorry,'" explains one woman. "Now you leave," she motions to me with her head, "or I may never get out of here."

At the Banja Luka parish, Bishop Franjo Komarica is a voice of tolerance as well as the unofficial spokesperson for the Catholics and other minorities still in northern Bosnia. Two-thirds of his diocese has fled the country and most of the others are preparing to join them. Over the past three years, Komarica has been kidnapped, shot at and beaten nearly to death. "Our people have lived here for 1,700 years and now we're on the verge of complete annihilation," he says. The truth about ethnic cleansing in RS has been no secret, he says, but the world has refused to take action to stop it.

The Bosnian Serbs' goal of an "ethnically clean" territory is a prerequisite to their larger dream, to be part of a Greater Serbia. But, after three years of fighting, they are battle-weary and frustrated with the rampant corruption and war profiteering that the RS president, Radovan Karadzic, condones. In RS, war profiteers - the political elite among them - are a class unto themselves. Since Karadzic relies directly on this criminal class for his power, he refuses to clamp down on their enterprises.

But whatever their criticisms of Karadzic, shortages and the war, most Bosnian Serbs stand firmly behind the larger political goals of the RS leadership. The regime's propaganda and the experience of the war has created a tightly spun logic that leads to one set of conclusions. The ultimate source of this logic is Belgrade, where the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, encouraged his puppet statelets from the very beginning. But as easily as Milosevic, the shrewd, cynical pragmatist, let go of Western Slavonia in Croatia, he could also abandon RS. Then the Bosnian Serbs would have their economically ruined police state all to themselves.

Selected by Robert Taylor

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games