A Bosnian Activist's View
— David Finkel interviews Nada Selimovic
NADA SELIMOVIC, BORN in 1952, graduated from secondary medical school and the Department of Political Studies at the University of Sarajevo. In 1978 she was elected to the parliament of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, becoming its youngest member. Her political activities obstructed because of her democratic opinions, she worked as the organizer and head of a health care center.
In 1991 Selimovic was one of the founders of the independent, non-governmental Center for Antiwar Activities. Following the aggression on Bosnia-Herzegovina, she became a member of the Expert Group in the Commission for collecting facts on war crimes, and has also worked in the new Institute for Research of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law.
Presently Nada Selimovic works for the independent newspaper Nasi Dani and continues to serve as director of the Center for Antiwar Activities.
An outspoken proponent of her homeland's struggle for survival, Nada Selimovic came to the United States in September, 1994, where she spoke in a number of East Coast and midwestern cities. David Finkel of the ATC editorial board interviewed her in Detroit on September 19. Because of the accelerating crisis in Bosnia, we spoke again by phone on November 22 to discuss the fighting around Bihac.
Against the Current: In the months since the declaration of the heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo, it's generally assumed that the crisis for that city's people, at least, has been solved. Can you tell us about conditions of life in Sarajevo today?
Nada Selimovic: In fact, the Serb forces' heavy weapons are still inside the 20-km zone -- the space from which these weapons were supposed to have been removed and controlled by the United Nations. They were collecting some pieces of heavy weapons, but a lot remains in position. These are long-distance weapons; it means that anytime they want the Serb forces can shell the city.
We are still surrounded, still a besieged town. The blue roads (main highways, analogous to U.S. interstates -- ed.) are still cut. Serb forces don't allow the passage of UN continental convoys with food and other aid.
Also, the main electricity supply as well as gas and water are held by Serb forces, on the territory which they control. They don't give permission to UN engineers to come into their territory and repair the lines.
Everything depends on their will. The UN protection forces, in fact, depend on the aggressors' permission -- if they want to give permission to UN humanitarian workers to restore water or gas equipment, then it is available.
ATC: In that context, what can you tell us about the recent threats of UN military commander Sir Michael Rose to call in air strikes against Bosnian army positions?
NS: This is just part of an ongoing campaign against Bosnians. The UN indirectly give help to the aggressors. They give legitimacy to the Serb forces' occupation of territory.
Michael Rose unfortunately acts as politician of the British government, and I wouldn't like to see him any longer in this position. His work does more damage than good.
ATC: How would you characterize the UN effort in Bosnia as a whole?
NS: My experience during two years as a citizen in Sarajevo is that the UN Protection Forces are not protection forces. Actually I felt they were representatives of the English, French and whatever other governments they come from.
This means they aren't able to do their work as really UN representatives. I ask myself, what really is the UN? Does the system of the United Nations really exist, or is it just something led by the USA, Britain, France, Russia<197>the most powerful countries?
ATC: Well, isn't the UN pretty much set up from the beginning to be dominated by the great powers and their interests?
NS: Yes, mostly. We have the experience of what happened in Iraq, what will happen today or tomorrow in Haiti, and don't forget Somalia. But also don't forget Bosnia, a country in the middle of Europe.
ATC: What's at stake, in your view, for the people of Europe and the world in Bosnia's war to survive?
NS: I know first what are the consequences for the Bosnian people. The consequences of the inability of international policy in Bosnia are that up to now we have over 200,000 people killed, 300,000 wounded, 1.3 million refugees. We have many, many destroyed factories and important production facilities. Towns are destroyed, people are destroyed.
And definitely the worst consequence, in my opinion, of the failure of international policy is that we have more or less divided my country along ethnic lines. But the citizens of Bosnia want to live in a common country, which means that our pre-war borders must be internationally recognized, that refugees can return to their lands.
Our citizens don't see a future if the country is divided. That is the death of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I think our struggle is a fight against fascism<197>because if we allow basic human rights and democratic values to be destroyed and if ethnic cleansing, even genocide continues, then the whole world has given up on human values.
It is a danger for Europe and the world. Therefore Serb nationalism, which has such strong fascist elements, must be stopped. Fifty years after World War II, I don't want to believe that the fascistic idea can win in Europe.
If you ask my personal identity, I am a Bosnian, with ethnic Serb origin. But first I am a human being, with a right to live in my country, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where I lived with Muslims, Croats, Gypsies, Albanians -- a multi-religious and multinational country. And keeping that character is the only basis on which my country can survive.
ATC: You founded an organization called the Center for Antiwar Activities. As an antiwar activist, what's your view of the arms embargo?
NS: Because of what I have told you, we need arms. Bosnia must have arms to defend her citizens, to protect internationally recognized borders, to protect her future.
We've seen the so-called international community spend more than two years in a so-called peace process, monitoring, sending a few mediators, now the so-called Contact Group, etc. etc. We must stop the waste of time, because Milosevic (president of Serbia -- ed.) only recognizes the language of military force.
ATC: But what about the recent highly publicized split between Milosevic and Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serb forces?
NS: In my opinion this is another game by Milosevic. It means that he wants -- and he is getting -- the time he needs.He wants to create his peacemaking image. But if his split with Karadzic is real, why did he refuse to allow UN observers on the border between Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia (to monitor the supposed cutoff of aid to Bosnian Serb forces --ed.)?
Karadzic, by the way, is not Bosnian. He is from Montenegro.
The second thing is, it's a very useful time for Karadzic to complete the ethnic cleansing of the territory they occupy. In the last two weeks they expelled from Banja Luka 400 Gypsies and Muslims, and the Muslims from Bijeljina.
This will be the third winter of the war. I think this will be the last winter we have aggression n my country. I am deeply convinced that the United States Congress will vote for the unilateral lifting of the arms embargo. This fact will help us very significantly to protect our security. [This interview was conducted prior to the Bosnian government's request that the embargo be lifted with a six-month delay in implementation -- ed.]
ATC: I must tell you that many of us are very skeptical that the U.S. government will take such a step. Even if Congress votes it, which is possible but not likely, they will know that it doesn't mean much because they don't have the two-thirds vote to override a presidential veto. Washington values its imperialist alliances much more than it does the survival of Bosnia.
NS: I am trying to lobby for the lifting of the arms embargo. I will try to contact as many Congressmen as possible to convince them how important it is to take this vote. I don't think U.S. citizens want to see their president as a weakling. He promised in his campaign many things. Now I think it's definitely time to say yes or no.
ATC: The governments of Bosnia and Croatia have agreed to a federation. What is your view about this agreement and arrangement?
NS: It can be looked at from two sides. I think it can be the first step in the reconciliation between Croats and Bosnian Muslims. And at high levels there is good consensus on implementing the agreement. But we need time to implement it on the ground.
The worst things have happened on the ground, in the villages and little places where HVO (Croat militia<197>ed.) committed war crimes. And will the war criminals get amnesty? This is one of the problems.
But I would like to believe that both sides will do everything they can to settle this agreement on the ground.
On the other hand, without the so-called third party, the Serbs living in Bosnia, this federation doesn't have much chance. Federation means that it's possible to reconstruct Bosnia-Herzegovina with its own citizens, on its entire territory. It's therefore very important to put pressure on Milosevic -- he's the one who counts, not Karadzic -- to sign this agreement.
It's important to try in a peaceful way to return the occupied territories, to connect them in one federal state. But if we really expect that this Washington agreement (between Bosnia and Croatia -- ed.) will be implemented -- without punishment of war criminals and opportunity for refugees to return to Bosnia-Herzegovina, without protection of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, we must recognize that this agreement will not have much chance to live.
Those are some of the conditions for making the agreement successful. If Milosevic is not compelled to sign this agreement, it could be the first step toward the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It would mean that the 51-49 partition principle would become a fact.
[The remainder of this interview was conducted by phone with Nada Selimovic in Florida on November 22 -- ed.]
ATC: What is the background of the Bosnian army offensive and Serb attacks around Bihac? Also, why is this battle significant<197>and who are the “rebel Muslim soldiers” mentioned in media reports fighting on the Serb side?
NS: For the Bosnian government, Bihac is one of the most important so-called “safe zones.” It is the most important government-controlled city in the northwest part of Bosnia, while Banja Luka is the biggest Serb-controlled town in that part of the country.
The Serbs have a deal with Fikret Abdic, a former member of the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, who is a criminal, wants money and, I think, is sick. Ten years ago he was a successful businessman who, in an underdeveloped part of the country, established a few factories and a food-processing industrial complex. This employed many people from western Bosnia, who felt they had some prospects for a better life.
Abdic set himself up as a kind of godfather. So when this part of Bosnia was cut off by the Serbs and isolated, the only connection we had was through Bihac -- Serbs controlled that part of the country and it wasn't possible to bring food to those people.
After the breakdown of the food complex that Fikret Abdic had set up, people had no jobs or money to buy food. Abdic made agreements with the Serb forces and began to trade with them. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) couldn't bring food to the Muslim people; the Serb chetniks supplied them through Abdic.
The Serbs asked Abdic for favors in return. They used him, as a Muslim and former member of the presidency of the republic, as their political tool, pointing to him as a Muslim who didn't like the Bosnian government. Abdic felt himself to be a new leader, a small-scale power in his own right.
In this situation those 20,000 Muslim refugees who refused to return to Bosnian territory are manipulated and brainwashed. Abdic is a traitor to his people: Proclaiming the “autonomy” of the western part of Bosnia meant that it would exist as a part of Karadzic's “Serbska” statelet. This of course the Bosnian government couldn't allow.
ATC: What is your opinion of the meaning of yesterday's NATO bombing of the Serb-controlled air strip in Croatia?
NS: I think NATO realized -- as the Bosnian government was asking all the time -- that they had to show they could do something against Karadzic and Milosevic. It could be a warning to the Serbs to sign the peace plan.
The Washington agreement was signed by Croatia and Bosnia. Where are the Serbs? They must sign the peace plan; this could be a solution for the Bosnian problem. At this moment NATO wants to convince Karadzic-Milosevic to sign.
There's a lot of talk about lifting the arms embargo. The Bosnian army is already stronger than it was two years ago. If they can get some heavy weapons they can remove the Serb forces from the occupied territory -- step by step the Bosnian army could become strong enough to free the whole Bosnian territory on its own.
ATC: There have been some media reports of CIA involvement in training Bosnian government forces. Do you know about that?
NS: I'm not aware of that. But when the Washington agreement was signed,I remember Clinton promising U.S. support for implementation of the agreement. It means that somehow we can expect some kind of military help, not U.S. soldiers or weapons, but possibly advisors -- I don't believe that CIA agents are training Bosnian soldiers.
ATC: At this moment the military crisis is escalating; how do you think it will resolve?
NS: All I can say is that this winter will be very difficult, the winter of decision, to win or lose in a military sense. But it's evident that the Bosnian army day to day is becoming bigger, stronger, better disciplined, with higher morale, and motivated to fight.
ATC 54, January-February 1995