With the crisis in Bosnia fading from the front pages, Jewish organizations are beginning to recognize that providing humanitarian assistance and delivering food and medical supplies may at this point be the most they can do.
A recent National Strategies for Bosnia conference brought together over 50 organizations that make up the World Alliance for Humanitarian Assistance for Bosnia and the American Task Force for Bosnia.
Jewish groups have long been involved in the task force, which has been lobbying for political action and public awareness.
These efforts have borne little fruit, as the U.S. government, the United Nations and NATO countries have made at best halfhearted attempts to stop the violence or level the playing field between Bosnia and its neighbors.
Political efforts will continue, if only as “a moral goad to the conscience of our nation and the world not to ignore the consequences of inaction,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director and legal counsel of the Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement.
Branching out into humanitarian aid is “something that can be done at a remedial level to help the situation,” said Saperstein, who added that there is still little indication that political efforts “are going to make a difference in the short run.”
The devastating lack of humanitarian aid actually getting in to Bosnia was a recurring theme of an international conference on Bosnia held recently in London and sponsored by the Bosnia-Herzegovina Information Center and the Friends of Bosnia Action Group in Great Britain.
During the conference, George Spectre, associate director of international, governmental and Israel affairs of B’nai B’rith, heard repeated questions, even direct accusations, about the incongruity between voluntary and government relief efforts and the reality of starvation on the ground in Bosnia.
Spectre chalks up at least a part of this situation to a lack of financial commitment to provide aid.
During a news conference by action groups for Bosnia, Spectre said, “Humanitarian aid must be provided on the scale and with the urgency that the United States provided on a continuous, round-the-clock basis to beleaguered Berlin in 1948 when the Soviets tried to isolate that German city.”
But he repeatedly heard rumors and testimony that far more aid was available than was actually being distributed because the United Nation has been blocking efforts to get food and medicine to Bosnia.
Spectre did not give credence to the charges, but said he has “heard them enough to think that somebody ought to investigate.”
Since 1991, the U.S. government has donated $435,780,469 in humanitarian assistance to the former Yugoslavia. This figure does not include aid donated by non-governmental relief organizations.
“First of all, not quite enough food and medicine and money is being donated by Western countries,” said Marshall Freeman Harris, foreign policy adviser to Rep. Frank McCloskey (D.-Ind.)
Perhaps more importantly, according to Harris, what is being donated is simply not getting there.
“Serbs, and to a lesser extent the Croats, block some of the aid,” Harris said.
“A significant percentage gets stolen in warehouses in Croatia and Serbia, and a small percentage is extorted from the U.N. and humanitarian aid groups in exchange for allowing convoys through,” he said.
There have been estimates that as much as 30 percent of any relief shipment disappears as soon as it lands at Sarajevo airport, now under Serbian control. An additional 50 percent of what remains gets taken at a checkpoint between the airport and Sarajevo.
Harris calls this situation “ridiculous. People are starving throughout Bosnia, and we are not willing to take on the small amount of resistance that kept the aid from getting through.”
According to Harris, there is no doubt that the United Nations could, if willing, rectify the situation. But U.N. rules of engagement in the former Yugoslavia allow United Nations troops to use force only in self-defense.
That means, Harris said, “that a small group of people with a few hand-held weapons is enough to stop a convoy.”
The United Nations’s rules of engagement, in Harris’ opinion, show “a lack of political will.”
Harris also believed there is “some evidence of U.N. people being in bed, so to speak, with the Serbs.”
This is another result of the United Nation’s unwillingness so far to employ credible force.
“U.N. troops are not armed as well as the Serbs. They are really there at the pleasure of the Serbs, and some have reached some kinds of informal accommodations with them,” Harris said.
The U.S. Government Accounting Office is in the process of investigating U.N. aid to Bosnia programs at the request of Sen. Bob Dole (R.-Kan.).
Dole’s concern stemmed from media reports that indicated, among other things, that U.N. officials have prevented the creation of large stockpiles of food and medicine in Bosnia, apparently to avoid giving the Bosnian government hope that it can survive another winter without a peace settlement.
Dole also raised concern about whether U.N. troops are involved in the black market and profiteering from the sale or misappropriation of relief supplies.
In a letter to Charles Bowsher, comptroller general of the United States, Dole wrote: “I am very concerned about reports that the United Nations is engaged in the manipulation and use of humanitarian assistance for political objectives.”
Harris, too, has heard some evidence of aid redirected in possible attempts to weaken the negotiating position of different factions in Geneva.
If this is the case, aid may be subtly withheld, as arms are blatantly, to force a slow end to the war.
A joint statement issued by Jewish members of the task force, including the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee, National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council and others, calls for an end to the arms embargo.
To Spectre, sale of arms to Bosnia is clearly a humanitarian issue, and the embargo both “aids the aggressor and makes more desperate the plight of the victim.”
To Henry Siegman, executive director of the AJCongress, who spoke at the strategies conference, lack of support for Bosnian Muslims is the ultimate hypocrisy – regardless of whether aid is intentionally misdirected.
“The notion that the United States and its allies are helpless to do anything about this human and political disaster is a palpable lie,” Siegman said.
“It is as believable as the argument that European countries and America could do nothing to help the Jews in the 1930s, even while they were turning away from their shores shiploads of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany,” he said.