Despondent UN Staff Question Their Role

'Why are we doing this?' is a question UN staffers in the former Yugoslavia often ask themselves

UNITED NATIONS staffers in Zagreb are greeting new rumors of the resignation of mission chief Yasushi Akashi with delight.

Morale at the headquarters of the UN mission in the former Yugoslavia has reached yet another new low. In interviews, staffers describe as "rudderless" a $1-billion-a-year mission bereft of leadership, vision, or support.

Frustrated staffers, however, reserve their severest criticism for the UN Security Council and its Western backers.

London, Paris, Bonn, Moscow, and Washington have become dirty words at the picturesque four-acre compound that headquarters the UN's largest, most expensive, and some say least successful mission ever.

"We're seeing a complete intellectual and diplomatic vacuum," says a UN staffer who asked not to be named. "There is a feeling of 'Why are we doing this?' We're losing [peacekeepers'] lives, and there is no end in sight."

After being denied troops in the past to enforce ambitious UN resolutions, staffers bitterly complain that Western powers are giving them a 10,000-troop Rapid Reaction Force with no clear marching orders.

Since Western leaders announced the creation of the new force, its mission has been quietly scaled down from possibly using force to get food convoys into Sarajevo and other surrounded cities, to simply protecting peacekeepers. Only one order remains clear, staffers says, peacekeepers in body bags - not Serb attacks on surrounded Bosnian cities - must be avoided.

"The fact that this new Rapid Reaction Force is only going to protect United Nations people has been a real issue for people here," says one staffer. "Everyone is depressed. There's a real sense of hopelessness."

As Western leaders backtrack on the force's goals, conditions worsened for the mission on the ground.

In Bosnia, a UN heavy-weapons exclusion zone around the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo has collapsed, leaving UN troops with little more to do than count explosions in the worst shelling to hit the city in at least a year. In Croatia, the government and rebel Serbs are ignoring UN diplomatic efforts as the country steadily drifts toward war.

The Council's response to the worsening situation, staffers say, has been silence and sending leftovers from the UN personnel office. A series of key positions have recently been filled by people described as at best unqualified and at worst incompetent.

"He's just unbelievable - no presence, no diplomatic aplomb at all," says a UN staffer, who ask he and his boss not be named. "My grandmother could do a better job."

Staffers complain that the conflict's image as intractable, and a bureaucratic UN personnel system, is leading the mission to rot from within. Young, talented UN personnel are shying away from a mission they see as a diplomatic Titanic.

One aspect in the rising discontent in Zagreb, according to staffers, has been the UN Commander in Bosnia Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith. The British general's exemplary conduct, according to staffers, has placed the mission's civilian and military heads - Mr. Akashi and Gen. Bernard Janvier - in a bad light.

Staffers praise General Smith for aggressively confronting the Serbs, sticking to his principles, and creatively using the little room for maneuver he has from the Security Council.

On the other hand, Akashi - and especially Janvier - appear obsessed with avoiding a confrontation with the Serbs, and lack the dynamism the faltering mission needs, they say.

"I always said the problem was New York, not here. But for the first time, I'm questioning whether [Akashi and Janvier] are part of the problem," says a senior UN official soon leaving the mission.

"I don't want to be part of this anymore."

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