Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Mark Duffield was in Bosnia and Croatia from January 9 to January 22, 1994 as part of a larger study of complex emergencies. The following is condensed from his “first impression” field report.

The war in former Yugoslavia has displaced over 4 million people. Nearly 3 million of these are in Bosnia, where half the population has been uprooted. From a humanitarian perspective, the war in Bosnia presents itself as the blockade and terrorization of civilian populations. While access can be negotiated, as the war has spread across central Bosnia this has become increasingly difficult. Food supplies have fallen to critical conditions.

Following the earlier spate of ethnic cleansing, the politics of blockade and terrorization currently take two main forms. One is the isolation of contiguous urban/rural areas to produce ethnic enclaves, for example, the Croat pocket between Vitez and Kiseljak or the Muslim enclave around Srebrenica. The second is the foreible containment, blackade and terrorization if trapped urban populations, for example, the predominantly Muslim ghettos of Sarajevo and Mostar East.

Since the war is taking place in an industrialized setting, essential utilities are subject to withdrawal. This is complicated, however, by the fact that such utilities form part of regional networks. Distribution systems cross ethnic boundaries and complementary parts of essential infrastructures can be controlled by different groups. In some places a form of “utility policies” has emerged which allows for limited supplies if mutual advantages can be demonstrated. Elsewhere, especially in the urban ghettos, all supplies are cut save what little can be negotiated through the humanitarian safety net.

Defining Features

Apart from its industrialized structure, the war in the former Yugoslavia has a number of other defining characteristics. These include the fact that owing to the reluctance of Western Europe to accept a large or uncontrollable refugee influx, the UN has been forced to internalize the displaced population within the old borders of Yugoslavia. Thus, the attempt by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to establish “protected areas.” Moreover, of the 4 million displaced, the majority have been housed in private accommodations.

Another feature is the reemergence of ghetto situations within Europe. Since Croat versus Muslim fighting began in Mostar in May 1993, for example, about 58,000 Muslims have been concentrated and forcibly contained in the thin strip of territory that represents Mostar East. More than half of this total have been displaced from other areas. The urban part of Mostar East is an area about two miles long and a half-mile wide. It is separated from the larger West and Croat part of the town by a river. More than 20,000 people live in desperate conditions in the urban part of Mostar East. Every building has been damaged by shelling; some parts are totally devastated. There is no water or electricity, and UNHCR convoys maintain a fragile lifeline. Even on a “quiet” day the civilian population is terrorized by sniper fire.

Within a half-mile of enforced deprivation, the restaurants and shops in Mostar West function as normal. The Croatian government recently released around 2,000 Muslim prisoners and forced them into Mostar East. Within the ghetto, a Bosnian War Presidency has assumed responsibility for defense and the provision of basic necessities. All housing has been commandeered and where space exists it has been allocated to the displaced. Stores and supplies are centrally controlled. The people eat in communal kitchens. More than 38,000 were fed in this manner last month. No money circulates and the small additional in-kind payments that are made to the civil administration sustain a barter economy. In the past couple of months teachers have attempted to restart a school system under most difficult conditions. In many cases, cold and dark cellars are being used as makeshift classrooms.

Relief and Protection

Relief policy is based upon the attempt to use military protection to deliver humanitarian aid in the context of ongoing conflict. The international safety net is structured around UNHCR as the lead agency, assisted by about 40 operational NGOs in Bosnia. As in Croatia, where there are more, the majority of these are concentrated in relatively secure areas. None have presence, for example, in Mostar East and only a few in Sarajevo. Some donor governments, including Britain, together with the European Union and UN specialist agencies, have become directly operational to an unprecedented extent.

Security for relief delivery is the responsibility of the UN Protection Forces in former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR). It is composed of eight national battalions assigned different geographical areas. UNHCR is responsible for negotiating access for its relief convoys. It then coordinates movement with UNPROFOR forces. Access is negotiated locally for each convoy.

UNPROFOR’s unwillingness to use force to fulfill its mandate has resulted in a decline in the effectiveness of the safety net as three-sided fighting has spread throughout central Bosnia in 1993. In places — despite winter conditions — UNHCR is now only able to deliver around 20 percent of estimated need. As a consequence, increasingly less has been passed by the Bosnian authorities to the civilian population. Apart from the normal hold-ups at checkpoints, a new development has been desperate civilians blocking food convoys. The UNHCR has no ability to monitor the distribution of relief supplies.

Perhaps the most significant and long-term development is the demonstrable lack of political will to enforce humanitarian law. The other obvious factor, following the trend in Africa, has been the necessity for humanitarian agencies to adapt to working in a way situation. From the trip-wire approach that was common in Africa during the mid-1980s, one now encounters a more decentralized and flexible approach to what is now a continuous threat. Typically, the relief worker is left to make day-to-day decisions on the basis of professional security briefings. In Kenya and south Sudan these were provided by ex-military personnel attached to the donor/NGO safety net. In Bosnia they are supplied directly by the military. In many places, body armor and bulletproof vehicles are now mandatory for UN and NGO personnel.

Bosnia has heralded important changes in the nature of the donor/NGO safety net. Since their poor performance during the Gulf war, it is evident that many NGOs which grew with the usually “slow-onset” and “safer” African disasters of the 1980s have found it difficult to adapt to continuous insecurity and the absence of established field offices and backup systems. The severity of the conflict in Bosnia (as well as in Somalia and Angola) has meant that a new generation of European, especially French and British, NGOs has begun to emerge. Some of these NGOs have managed to fill important gaps, especially in logistics.

Relief practice in Bosnia begs comparison with that which has evolved in Africa. One is presented with the contrasting effects of conflict on what, for want of better terms, can be called industrial and agrarian systems. Relief policy in Africa has been shaped by development thinking. That is, taking note of limited public-sector capacity, internationally managed relief programs are asked to incorporate institution-building measures with the intention of handing them over to indigenous structures. In practice, in many countries and regions — for example, Angola, Liberia and south Sudan — the donor/NGO safety net has all but taken over direct responsibility for basic public provision.

In the case of industrial or urban-centered systems, one encounters relatively strong local authority and professional structures. While the effect of conflict and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia has been to weaken or distort these structures, in many places significant indigenous capacity still remains. Relief policy should primarily help local public and social structures achieve a transition to providing a lower level or different service.

The preference of NGOs over government structures on the grounds of neutrality deserves more debate. While a number of NGOs support existing capacity in Bosnia, many do not, and prefer their own “brand projects.” As in Africa, NGO operations in Bosnia also offer high salaries and attract experienced professionals.

The Demise of Military Humanitarianism

The evidence from Bosnia is that in the context of an ongoing war, unless the military is prepared to use force (and accept the consequences) it becomes a hostage of the combatants and disliked by all sides, including supposed beneficiaries. In this situation, the $1 billion that UNPROFOR needs just to stand at attention appears unjustified. To many in the former Yugoslavia, there is a close association between UNPROFOR (a product of the UN Security Council) and the UN and NGO humanitarian agencies. This association, and the general hostility toward UNPROFOR, has not helped the work of the humanitarian organizations. Even small NGO convoys now find it difficult to cross checkpoints.

How the war in Bosnia will end is unclear. One of the most disturbing consequences of the war, one whose significance has yet to fully register, is the clear lack of political will or ability to enforce humanitarian law. Despite the extraordinary exposure and recording of illegal acts, rather than redressing the situation, the UN appears to be in retreat. This is a political failure of historic consequence.

How to cite this article:

Mark Duffield "Bosnia and the Future of Military Humanitarianism," Middle East Report 187-188 (March/April 1994).
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