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The Shadow of a Shield : Amid deepening violence, U.N. forces in Bosnia have come to symbolize not hope but impotence to those they've come to help.

July 25, 1993|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | Carol J. Williams, The Times' Vienna Bureau chief, covers Eastern Europe. She previously contributed "The Last Days of Yugoslavia" to this magazine

The distant groan of U.S. Army cargo planes passing two miles overhead sounds reveille across the landscape of Srebrenica. Homeless Muslim women, roused by the engine noise from their beds of asphalt on the fetid streets, disentangle themselves from children nestled around them in a warming heap. They pick off the most bothersome lice, hitch up their grimy floral pantaloons and scurry off to the surrounding hillsides. In this pre-dawn ritual of degradation, those who first sight the parachutes, then push, claw and bite their way past the rest, will come back to their curbside encampment with a token of Western largess.

Each morning before first light, C-130 Hercules transports from the Rhein-Main air base in Germany jettison huge wooden pallets of relief goods into besieged Srebrenica. There is only enough in the food drops to sustain a fraction of the refugees, inspiring a brutal scramble among displaced mothers with hungry children who have made their way to the town, a U.N.-protected way station for Muslims.

Most of the dropped containers hold more than a ton of MREs, the bland but hearty military ration packs generically labeled "Meals Ready to Eat." Unheated tins of pea soup and meatball stew are the butt of jokes among the soldiers they are prepared for, but to the victims of slow starvation trapped by Serbian artillery, each cold calorie is a savored reprieve from death.

But on this late spring morning, the foraging mothers find a disappointing substitute for the usual life-sustaining alms. Instead of the cherished aluminum ration tins, their grappling is rewarded with men's shaving kits. In a town as achingly short of water as it is of shelter and food, the mini-bottles of lotion and after-shave and plastic-wrapped disposable razors seem more a mockery of the desperate, infested women than a hygienic pick-me-up, as the men's toiletries were meant to be.

"It's ridiculous. These people are starving, but it is literally all we had to send them," concedes a chagrined official of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR's European aid warehouses have been intermittently barren for months, drained by the open mouth of Bosnia, where war has raged for 15 months, producing more hungry and homeless each day. Dispatch of aid--usually food, but sometimes toiletries or teddy bears--has been the outside world's main response to the mayhem, in which the Bosnian government claims that more than 200,000 have been killed and 2.2 million driven from their homes by battle or the war's signature practice of "ethnic cleansing."

The United States and its European allies have backed off from the Vance-Owen accord, a U.N.-mediated plan to impose peace in Bosnia, having concluded that no strategic interests are at stake in the Balkan crisis--only the lives, health and dignity of war victims like the women of Srebrenica. The peace plan, months in the making, had nurtured refugee hopes of one day returning home, but it has been declared dead, victim of both Serbian nationalism and Western leaders' refusal to put humanitarian principle ahead of political risk. Fearful of being drawn into a Vietnam-style quagmire, the presidents and prime ministers of the world's leading democracies have retreated from the Bosnian crisis and covered their tracks with the ill-understood U.N. aid mission.

More than 32,000 U.N. troops have been deployed amid the wreckage of former Yugoslavia. The world body's white armor seems to clatter everywhere, and its sky-blue flags flutter along patrol routes stretching hundreds of miles. But despite the physical evidence that the West is working on the Balkan crisis, the purported beneficiaries of one of the largest and most expensive U.N. relief missions in history see the foreign presence as a giant cover-up for the international community's reluctance to stop the war. The ever-expanding U.N. deployment costs more than $1 billion a year, but the millions of people it claims to be aiding consider it little more than a cynical charade designed to ease the consciences of those in the West who are otherwise willfully ignoring a genocide.

The collective voice of the outraged world has loudly condemned Serb nationalist forces for sparking what has become an intractable, three-sided war. U.N. Security Council resolutions have decried the use of heavy artillery against unarmed civilians and ordered the rampaging guerrilla forces to kindly abide by civilized rules. But none of the diplomatic snarls from New York have the bite of enforcement, and the warriors know it. Sarajevo and all other vestiges of integrated Bosnia continue to be bombarded. Militant Serbs' hardware has only advanced amid the U.N. pleas. Troop-ferrying helicopters and supply planes, mostly those of the defiant Serbs, are spotted over the forested mountains violating the U.N. no-fly zone almost every day.

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