SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — WHEN Muhamed Gacanovic goes to work, he lies to his wife and two sons. Instead of telling them he is a driver for UN aid convoys to besieged Sarajevo - five drivers have been killed on the job - he tells them he is "going to the airport."
"There are two considerations," the Bosnian Muslim muses. "My personal existence and the existence of the people of the city. It seems to me that I have to do this."
But Mr. Gacanovic can't understand why the international community is timid in opening a secure route into Sarajevo through Serb-held territory.
"They have the power," Gacanovic said after driving the last of UN food supplies into Sarajevo last week, protected only by a makeshift shield of plywood and plates taken from bullet-proof vests. "It's just a question of whether they have the principles."
For the first time in three years, UN food warehouses in Sarajevo are empty. UN officials have been forced to succumb to Serb demands that UN peacekeepers no longer escort the aid convoys.
The situation would be comical, UN officials say, if it wasn't tragic. While food supplies shrink in Sarajevo and reach critically low levels in three surrounded Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia, more than 4,000 UN troops in Sarajevo have little more to do than while away the time and try not to be taken hostage.
"Basically, the only thing we're doing right now is to monitor and observe the situation," UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko said yesterday.
It is becoming increasingly unclear in Sarajevo whether the UN Protection Force is protecting the Bosnian government or the Bosnian government is protecting UNPROFOR. As of this week, the UN has had to have the Bosnian Muslims ship some of their food and Bosnian Serbs protect some of their convoys.
The Bosnian government is believed to have several weeks' worth of food stored, but UN peacekeepers are on rations and have only two weeks' worth of food and fuel left.
The first Sarajevo-bound convoy that will not be escorted by UN troops is scheduled to arrive in the city today. The people riding shotgun will not be members of the new UN Rapid Reaction Force - they will be Bosnian Serb policemen.
The UN convoys have been continuously delayed, harassed, and pilfered over the last three years when they cross Bosnian Serb territory, and expectations are high that today's convoy will either be delayed or confiscated.
"We have been offered a Bosnian Serb civilian police escort," says Mark Cutts, an official here for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "We are trying to make sure they will be there waiting for us, and that they lead the convoy to the right place."
The Bosnian Serbs' refusal to allow the opening of the Sarajevo airport, which in the past received 50 percent of the city's aid, has made meeting the city's humanitarian needs impossible, according to UNHCR officials.
They say with the Serb checkpoint leading into the city closed on Mondays and Fridays, and a Serb history of delays in granting permission for land convoys, it is unlikely the eight convoys a week needed to fully supply the city can reach it.
The only escort activity left to UN troops in Sarajevo is to accompany UN convoys once a week across a 200-yard stretch near the city airport. The convoys are carrying food that the UN has resorted to asking the Bosnian government to bring to a nearby Muslim-held suburb - something they have never done in the past.
Last week, the UNHCR delivered 200 tons of wheat flour to the government-held town of Tarcin south of Sarajevo. From there, the Bosnian government is moving the wheat flour by truck along 20 miles of winding mountain roads.
For now, Bosnian government trucks and individuals are navigating the road at night. During the day, nearby Serb antiaircraft guns frequently target the road.
UN attempts to get food into three surrounded Muslim enclaves in eastern Bosnia, where peacekeepers are on rations and are patrolling on foot because they have no fuel, are also bordering on the absurd. Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic told UN officials yesterday that an aid convoy would not be allowed into the surrounded Muslim enclave of Gorazde until Bosnian government forces withdrew from key positions they gained in recent fighting.
Bosnian Serb officials stopped a UN convoy to Zepa last week first saying there was fighting ahead, then saying some items in the convoy were not listed on the manifest they had received, and finally announcing that they had found ammunition hidden in some of the food sacks.
After the Bosnian Serbs threatened to arrest the convoy drivers, confiscate their trucks, and prosecute them for arms smuggling, a senior UNHCR official was able to negotiate the return of the trucks, but the food was left in Bosnian Serb hands.
UN officials are calling the Bosnian Serb demands "outrageous," but said there is little they can do to bring food into the enclaves. On orders from UN headquarters in New York, the mission is abiding by "peacekeeping principles" and has ruled out the use of force - except in self-defense - until further notice.
The UN does have a weapon - food. But UNHCR officials say they will not halt food shipments to the Serb side until aid convoys are let through.
"If it is a question of feeding needy people [on the Serb side], we will do it" says UNHCR official Cutts. "We are not prepared to use food as a weapon the way many others do."