BERLIN -- If the United Nations departs from Bosnia, that country will be left to complete its suicide unhindered and unattended by the outside world, with only its resident Muslims, Serbs, and Croats present to divvy up the corpse.
That is the legacy facing the United Nations after more than two years of troubled involvement as a would-be peacekeeper.
The Bosnian Serbs' capture last week of a U.N. "safe area" for Muslims -- the enclave of Srebrenica -- has at last forced the stay-or-leave decision long avoided by the United Nations, Europe and the United States.
If Western leaders had listened more closely during the past two years to the people in the cities, towns and mountains of Bosnia -- people whose voices have often been drowned out by the Western clamor over saving face -- they might have gotten the message on Bosnia sooner.
Bosnians of every ethnic background have tended to speak with one voice when it came to assessing the United Nations' effectiveness. They concluded long ago that the mission's failure was not only likely but almost inevitable.
"It is the U.N. Protection Force, but protecting who?" asked a Muslim woman, Jasmina Barupa, from her boarded-up, bullet-scarred home on the outskirts of Vitez in central Bosnia in May 1993. "They are here to protect themselves, and whenever the fighting starts it's as if they don't exist."
The residents of Srebrenica, now fleeing by the tens of thousands after 27 beleaguered months of U.N. "safety," would doubtless agree.
So would the people of Bihac, who huddled under heavy shelling in November that continued after the Serbs brushed aside U.N. warnings to stop.
And Sarajevo has already buried 10,000 examples of how little protection the United Nations' threats and promises provide once the war's generals decide it's time to start fighting again.
From the beginning, Bosnians such as Ms. Barupa have always believed this war would be settled the way most wars are -- on the battlefield.
Privately, U.N. officials have also come to believe this, especially once it was apparent that neither Europe nor the United States had the resolve to militarily impose a solution.
Michael Williams, who two months ago ended his tour of duty as chief U.N. spokesman in the former Yugoslavia, said, "In the 18 months I was there one had the gut feeling all along that there was an erosion taking place, and that some sort of awful end was coming."
Mr. Williams, now a policy analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said, "If there is a U.N. withdrawal, it will be a military retreat covering a political defeat." And as bitter as the United Nations' legacy will be, he said, Europe's will be even more dishonorable.
When European diplomats look back on the war, they will see a landscape littered with broken cease-fires and empty ultimatums.
There have also been 200,000 people killed -- casualties over issues that were supposed to have been settled before the Cold War set East against West.
When the Cold War ended, Europe was supposed to enter into an age when it could direct its fate without outside interference or aid.
Instead it has found itself helpless at stopping the eruption of old ethnic strife, and crying for help and guidance from the United States.
Europe's greatest economic power, Germany, has virtually removed itself from the Balkans conflict, in deference to memories of the Nazis' murderous behavior there during World War II.
"How can any European statesman get up now and speak with any credibility about collective European security?" Mr. Williams asked.
Anyone who tries certainly won't have credibility with the likes of Ratko Orozovic, who, being a Serb with a Muslim wife and a Croatian mother, is the sort of archetypal multiethnic Sarajevan once thought to be the best hope for a peaceful Bosnian future.
Mr. Orozovic, who before the war made a name for himself as a film director, has spent most of the war huddled with his family in their apartment in the heavily shelled suburb of Dobrinja. He long ago took to calling the U.N. Protection Force by the acronym UNPROFOOL, and after contemplating the world's efforts at mediation he concluded, "This war is a tragedy and a comedy at the same time."
Nor do pronouncements of European security guarantees carry weight anymore with Maria Petrlic, another Sarajevan. For the first few months of fighting she was hopeful of U.S. or European intervention, buoyed especially by the stern line-in-the-sand talk of politicians. But two years ago she decided, "It is nothing but paper, these U.N. resolutions."
The pervasiveness of such sentiments has always been apparent in the way Bosnia's armies have responded to peace plans.
Consider what happened 2 1/2 years ago, when two of the most distinguished diplomats the West had to offer, the United States' Cyrus R. Vance and Britain's Lord Owen, offered the earliest and seemingly best hope for Bosnian peace, a patchwork map of ethnic cantons. Bosnian fighters of all three sides -- Serbian, Muslim, Croatian -- took the boundaries to heart not as truce lines but as zones for internationally sanctioned "ethnic cleansing."
When the great powers' "Contact Group" -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany and Russia -- took over the negotiating chores and finally got the Bosnian government to sign a peace plan calling for a 50-50 split of territory with the Serbs, the compliance was cynically viewed by the Bosnian public as a way of humiliating the Serbs. It was well known that the Serbs would refuse to sign the deal because they would have to turn over too much of their conquered land.
Diplomats and analysts also acknowledged privately at the time that the only thing that would have brought the Serbs around on such a deal -- military gains by the Bosnian Muslims -- would have been the very thing to make the Bosnian Muslims back out of the deal.
Even the war's biggest diplomatic success, a Western-brokered federation between Bosnian Croats and Muslims, is seen as less lasting marriage than a military convenience. Only by uniting did they stand a chance of turning the war against the Serbs. It is clear in talking to people in central Bosnian towns such as Ms. Barupa's that the settling of scores between Muslims and Croats has merely been postponed, not canceled.
With last week's attack on Srebrenica, military urgency again took command over weak diplomacy. Military analysts say the Serbs have been in position to make such an assault for two years but never felt the need because they surrounded the town.
Now, with the Bosnian government army making gains by exploiting the weak spots in the Serbs' long, thin battlefront, the Serbs want to free up 5,000 soldiers by disposing of the three Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia once and for all.
Any hesitation they might have once had due to past NATO airstrikes disappeared in November, when the Serbs called the bluff of the United Nations and NATO by proceeding past an initial airstrike and a follow-up warning.
Now a second eastern enclave, Zepa, is under Serbian attack, with only 69 Ukrainian troops on hand to guarantee the U.N. protection that couldn't be provided by 400 Dutch troops at Srebrenica. Last in line in the east is Gorazde, where 400 British and Ukrainian soldiers await the worst.
French leaders spoke briefly and loudly last week of a military counterstroke against the Serbs at Srebrenica. But the French backed off from their initial threat to go it alone. And the lack of enthusiasm from Britain or the United States made it clear there was no imminent threat to the Serbian conquerors.
NATO's lukewarm interest in averting the fall of further enclaves was apparent in remarks made by U.S. Adm. Leighton W. Smith, commander of Allied forces for Southern Europe, in a news conference just after Srebrenica's defenses collapsed.
"First of all, I would not consider the NATO part of this to be a failure," he said. "I think the NATO aircrews did a magnificent job in responding, and I will tell you that the [U.N.] people in Sarajevo will echo what I have just told you."
L "They were extraordinarily happy with the way we responded."
Meanwhile, all hopes for a negotiated settlement have virtually disappeared, although, as Mr. Williams pointed out, the "Contact Group" is still meeting.
"They get together as a sort of gentleman's club," he said derisively. "God knows what they talk about anymore."