PALE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Confronted with what they see as a choice between defeat or annihilation, Bosnia's defiant Serbs trekked through rain and rubble Saturday to cast a vote for deadly struggle.
A two-day referendum on a proposed Western peace plan was called by Bosnian Serb leaders to demonstrate to disbelieving foreign mediators how their followers feel about the settlement offer already rejected three times by the rebels' self-styled parliament.
Another "no" vote on the plan to divide Bosnia into 10 ethnic provinces would probably intensify calls for Western military intervention to break the Serbs' deadly republic-wide siege.
But it is just such a rejection and flouting of the will of the international community that is expected when the ballots are counted later this week.
Throughout the tense and "ethnically cleansed" territories in the hands of Bosnian Serbs, voters who were interviewed were virtually unanimous in their contempt for the peace plan drafted by U.N. mediator Cyrus R. Vance and his European Community partner, Lord Owen.
"There are only two possibilities--that all Serbs here in Bosnia flee over the Drina River (to Serbia) or we wait for the world to kill us," said Zeljko Paradjina, a 36-year-old local government clerk in the nearby village of Mokro. "Everybody, every single person, is voting against this plan."
His view that the Vance-Owen proposal offers no opportunity for survival is widely shared among the Bosnian Serbs and largely explains their willingness to defy the rest of the world.
Some U.N.-member countries have warned that if the Serbs continue to refuse their formula for peace, air power could be used against them to destroy the heavy artillery bombarding Sarajevo or an arms embargo could be lifted to allow the predominantly Muslim Bosnian government to buy weapons.
Most of those who have backed the 13-month-old drive to seize lands for annexation to a Greater Serbia feel there is no going back to any common life with former Muslim and Croat neighbors, as would be required in some areas under the Vance-Owen plan.
The Serbs' determined campaign to live in ethnically pure communities united with other Balkan Serbs has unleashed a seemingly unstoppable cycle of factional violence that has killed an estimated 150,000 and forced 2 million Bosnians to flee their homes. Most of the dead and displaced have been Muslim civilians.
Because the Serbs see the Western-mediated settlement as capitulation and fear revenge by returning refugees, most say they prefer to press on with a doomed battle for union with Serbia, even at the risk of provoking foreign military intervention.
"There is no victory. We can be exterminated," conceded Slavisa Rakovic, an adviser to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, in this mountain village the rebels have made their capital until they can take Sarajevo, about 10 miles away.
He predicted at least a 90% vote to defeat the peace plan and said most Bosnian Serbs are fully aware that their choice will be seen as final and fraught with risks of punitive intervention.
Some of the multitudes voting against the plan that has been endorsed by Bosnia's Muslims and Croats contend with a note of bravado that they could repel threatened Western air strikes.
"The West can try military intervention, but we will be the winners," insisted Boro Borovcanin, a former postal worker who fled Sarajevo more than a year ago to take up arms with fellow Serbs rebelling against independence.
Asked how he could be confident that the Bosnian Serbs' tiny self-proclaimed state could withstand a multinational invasion, Borovcanin replied with all sincerity: "Because we Serbs cannot be defeated."
Others are less confident of their chances if eventually confronted by Western force. But they appeared no less intent on casting votes likely to invite it.
Nenad Tesic, a Serb fighter in the central town of Han Pijesak, said he was frightened of the consequences of what he said would surely be an overwhelming "no" vote.
"Of course I'm afraid. This is war and people die in wars, but it is going to continue whether we support the Vance-Owen plan or not," said the gaunt gunman voting with his wife. "This plan is terrible. The one thing it doesn't allow for is peace."
Under the terms of the Vance-Owen proposal, Bosnian Serbs would have to withdraw their soldiers and armor from nearly half of the territory they have taken by force and expunged of the Muslims and Croats who outnumbered them, 2 to 1, before the war.
With the help of mercenaries and military supplies from the Serbian nationalist leadership in Belgrade, Bosnia's Serb rebels have taken control of more than 70% of the republic.
Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, however, has recently dropped support for his Bosnian brothers under the strain of severe U.N. sanctions that have hastened Serbia's economic collapse.
While some hard-line Bosnian Serb leaders have labeled Milosevic a turncoat, most average people have accepted the official line that he was acting under unfair pressure from Western mediators.
"He was squeezed and blackmailed by the international community and probably had no choice," Karadzic said in an interview at his Pale headquarters. "We are not angry with him. We are sad rather than angry. We know he is responsible to his own country and was under terrible pressure."
Svjeta Maksimovic, a 24-year-old peasant in the eastern village of Buljevici, said she is convinced that Milosevic is still behind Bosnian Serbs "in his heart."
Nearly half of the estimated 1 million Bosnian Serbs eligible to vote had cast ballots by Saturday evening, said Rada Radovic, a spokeswoman for the referendum press center. Voting was to continue today, and results are expected Wednesday.