Help Seems Remote in Besieged Sarajevo

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor.

FOR Ivana Benic and her family, surviving in the beleaguered Bosnia-Herzegovina capital of Sarajevo meant having to eat pigeons.

"We trapped them on the window sill using an improvised net. But, since the fighting has become worse, the birds have fled," she said.

"Now we are eating cakes of flour and water. Like matzos. We are running out of food fast and the situation doesn't seem very good. We have about two or three days of food left," Ms. Benic said.

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She and her parents are among an estimated 30,000 people - Muslim Slavs, Croats, and Serbs - trapped by Serbian fighters in the massive Dobrinja apartment complex on the western fringe of what was once one of the most picturesque cities in the Balkans.

Dobrinja, parts of which were built to house athletes and journalists for the 1984 Winter Olympics, is just one of about a half-dozen besieged residential settlements claimed by the Yugoslav Army-armed Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) in its ruthless battle to partition Sarajevo into ethnic districts.

The party has encircled the settlements with tanks, armored personnel carriers, machine-gun nests, and snipers. It has refused to allow food and medicines in or men, women, or children to leave since the beginning of May.

Speaking in telephone interviews, Dobrinja residents described horrifying conditions under which they have been living - daily Serbian shellfire blasted point blank into apartments, "ethnic cleansing" of non-Serbs from captured buildings, days and nights in dank, crowded basement shelters, and mountains of rat-infested refuse.

"I estimated there are about 50 tons of garbage already spread around Dobrinja," said Saser Medjedovic, an agriculture professor. "If this continues, we ... face all sorts of diseases. Flies are appearing almost in swarms."

Fierce fighting and Serbian bombardments this week triggered by an unsuccessful Bosnian security force attempt to relieve Dobrinja left the complex without electricity. Water is still running. But it is yellowish and must be boiled with rapidly depleting supplies of bottled gas.

Residents said that they and Dobrinja's outgunned but resolute defenders have been burying corpses in the grassy lots of the complex's courtyards, while wounded receive only rudimentary treatment at a local clinic.

But the exhaustion of food stocks is the most acute crisis facing residents, who warned that like hundreds of thousands of other people in Sarajevo, they were on the brink of starvation.

"There is no food left. I ate two dog biscuits the other day," said Josip Kacic, an English teacher. "We heard people calling from their windows, asking if we had any food. So, it's getting pretty desperate."

SDS forces have maintained a stranglehold on Sarajevo for about six weeks, preventing food shipments from reaching the city in an apparent bid to use hunger and bombardments to batter it into submission.

Aware of the imminent onset of starvation, the United Nations Security Council earlier this week authorized the dispatch of 1,000 international troops to secure Sarajevo's Serb-held airport for flights of humanitarian aid.

On Wednesday, the UN dispatched to Sarajevo a team of military observers to oversee the implementation of a June 5 accord for a cease-fire around the airport and the transfer of the facility to UN control. But their convoy was attacked by unidentified assailants and detoured into Yugoslav Army barracks on the western fringe of Sarajevo as UN officials sought guarantees from the warring sides of safe passage into the city.

Some Dobrinja residents are losing hope that help will come. "Help from outside is not believed here anymore," said Zajim Cerimagic, a retired office worker. "People think it is just an illusion."

One attempt on June 2 to run food supplies into the complex met with failure when the UN-escorted convoy was blasted by Serbian machine gun fire that killed a local aid worker.

Residents spend their days clustered in stairwells or basements, trying to support each other amid the flurries of Serbian artillery, tank, and mortar rounds that have damaged or demolished many sections of the complex.

"Some of us are going through different moods," said Mr. Kacic. "There is irrational laughter and some people try to make jokes.

"We had a rocket fired into our apartment the other day," he continued. "Everyone was in the basement and I was upstairs checking apartments. I was in the entrance way to my flat.

"If I had taken two more steps toward the kitchen, I would have been gone."

Residents admitted they had broken into abandoned apartments to forage for supplies, which they then pooled in an effort to stretch them for as long as possible.

Said Petar Majic, an engineer: "We are living in a ghetto that is worse than the Warsaw ghetto. I would have gotten out if I'd known it would be this bad. But, I thought no one could be this brutal."

Ms. Benic read an excerpt from a diary her father has been faithfully maintaining since the beginning of the siege.

"I'm 63 and too old to take a gun and fight," he wrote. "If anyone ever says that all this never happened, I will be able to show them it really did. These are the facts of the horror."

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