Serbs as Self-Declared Bastions

Bosnian Serbs can't understand why the West won't help them check Islam's spread in Europe

IN his tan sweater, worn blue jeans, and white tennis sneakers, he looks calm, collected, and reasonable. But an edge creeps into his voice when he talks about the menace he believes is threatening his country, family, and way of life.

``Islam is the world's biggest enemy,'' says Pero, a Bosnian Serb soldier who gave only his first name. ``You will realize that soon in America if you haven't realized it by now.''

A happily married father of two, Pero's view of the world mimics that of many in the Bosnian Serb self-declared capital of Pale.

Bosnian Serbs - deeply suspicious of the West, frequently citing vast conspiracy theories, and quick to use ancient and not-so-ancient history to justify their actions - are misunderstood by the world, Pero explains.

``The Muslims and Croats committed genocide against us with Hitler. They joined Germany and tried to occupy the entire world,'' Pero says, referring to the 70,000 to 100,000 Serbs that Western historians agree were killed by a pro-Nazi regime in Croatia and Bosnia in World War II. ``It's reasonable that if we don't defend ourselves now, something similar could happen again.''

Dragan, another young soldier who gives only his first name, can't understand why the West isn't aiding the Serbs in the fight to keep Islam out of Europe. ``With the example of Chechnya, you can see that the Islamic fundamentalists are waking up, and they want to be the leading force in the world,'' he says.

Dragan is confident that if US Senate majority leader Bob Dole's proposal to lift the arms embargo against the Muslim-led Bosnian government is enacted, his fellow Slavs and Orthodox Christians in Russia will help. ``Russia will take part,'' he says. ``Orthodox is orthodox. They will protect us.''

Savo, a bearded civil engineer who could pass for an American college professor in his tweed jacket and sweater, says the war in Bosnia is an attempt by the United States to weaken Europe. ``Maybe we and the Muslims are fed up with the war, but the big powers in the world aren't,'' he says. ``The Americans and Islamic countries want something that will divide Europe. A united Europe is 20 times more strong than America.''

Echoing Bosnian Serb government propaganda, he says the Islamic countries' goal in Bosnia is to establish a base to spread Islamic fundamentalism across Europe and wage a jihad, or holy war. ``It's written in the Koran,'' Savo says.

Several Bosnian Serbs in Pale - an isolated ski resort town of 25,000 near Sarajevo - see themselves as underdogs fighting against oil-rich Islamic countries that have gained control of the United States and international news organizations, such as CNN.

``The Islamic countries got America to take on the obligation of helping the Muslims here by giving them jobs and money,'' says Ranka Berjan, a former Sarajevo resident who says living with Muslims or Croats now is ``impossible'' because of the brutality of the war. ``If you're a Serb, you don't belong in Muslim territory. If you're a Muslim, you don't belong in Serb territory,'' she says. ``I came here to share the destiny of my people.''

Pero struggles to explain how he and close Muslim and Croat friends ended up on opposite sides of Europe's worst conflict since World War II. After thinking for a moment, he rationalizes - like millions of soldiers in wars before him - that his friends, who are now technically his enemies, are good people. ``We used to go to the same schools. We were really good friends,'' he says. ``If I saw them on the front lines I wouldn't shoot them.''

Staring intently across the table, he asks one final question. ``I read in a book of predictions that Orthodox and Catholics would unite in 1997 to fight Islam,'' he says. ``What do you think?''

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