Surprisingly, ‘forgotten’ Zepa hangs on
This article is from the Boston Globe archives. It was originally published on Tuesday, July 25, 1995.
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Zepa is the “safe area” the world forgot -- a tiny wooded enclave in the middle of nowhere, which, like its battered motherland, simply doesn’t know how to lose.
Up to 17,000 Muslims now huddle in the 150-square-kilometer Zepa valley, an area of dark green ferns, white minarets and marble bridges that seems more suited to “Hansel and Gretel” than to warfare.
Zepa gained fame last week as the second UN-declared “safe area” to succumb to rebel Serbs and their tanks in less than two weeks.
But that fame was fleeting because, unbeknown to the attacking Serbs, the Sarajevo government or the local Ukrainian peacekeepers, Zepa fought on.
It is a remote area coveted only by those told they cannot possess it. In the last war, the Nazis tried, and limped home bloodied; in this war the Serbs are hoping their third try will be the charm.
Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic’s army turned its sights and tanks on Zepa on July 14 after plowing through the nearby Srebrenica enclave and committing what UN Human Rights Envoy Tadeusz Mazowiecki yesterday described as “barbaric acts” on an “enormous scale.”
Relying on relentless mortar, tank and artillery fire, Mladic’s forces seized the high ground that rings the enclave, whose largest village, Zepa, contains 150 houses.
Last Thursday two wobbly-kneed Muslim men emerged from the forest, hoisting a white flag. They agreed to surrender and requested Mladic evacuate the sick, the wounded and the elderly inside the enclave. The Serb commander was so sure he’d cinched it that he rattled off a fax to his least favorite UN commander, Rupert Smith, boasting, “Zepa has surrendered.”
Never known to be hospitable to international agencies, Mladic invited foreign inspectors to the area to monitor the anticipated evacuation.
And as a final measure, he ordered the deployment not of more tanks, but of 30 buses and 20 cattle trucks that would transport the enclave’s women, children and elderly one way and its fighting-age men another.
This is where his deal collapsed. According to UN officials who arrived in Zepa the next day, Mladic had negotiated with the wrong man, Dr. Benjamin Kulovac, the disgruntled town mayor, who, like many refugees trapped in the three eastern enclaves, wanted out.
Col. Avdo Palic is the real power in Zepa. A short, bearded former reserve Yugoslav Army captain, Palic has commanded Zepa’s defense since the Bosnian war began 40 months ago.
Though countless Muslim population centers in eastern Bosnia were gobbled up, Palic made sure Zepa survived.
In the spring of 1992, according to UN officials, he orchestrated a raid on a Yugoslav Army communication tower on Zepa’s “Evil Hill,” capturing 50 rifles and killing as many as 50 Serbs.
In June 1992 when the Serbs tried to retaliate, Palic ordered the only paved road in the valley dynamited and the incoming tanks ambushed. The Serbs say 400 soldiers were killed in their single biggest defeat in the war.
It is not surprising, therefore, that two years later, Palic is not anxious to entrust his fate or that of his people to Mladic or the United Nations.
Mladic knows the final assault on Zepa will be costly. Western military officials say he must choose the “least bad” route from the heights he controls into the base of the enclave, where the people live.
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