THE WORLD FROM ...Tuzla, Bosnia

The siege of Srebrenica has focused attention on this city, where residents struggle to help a flood of refugees

THE people of Tuzla are wondering what the rest of the world really knows about them.

International attention has focused here only since UN convoys last month began evacuating to the city thousands of Muslims trapped by the brutal Bosnian Serb siege of the eastern town of Srebrenica and bringing them to Tuzla.

Camera crews and reporters from across the globe have flocked here to cover the refugees. International aid workers have arrived in numbers unknown since the year-long conflict erupted in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But Tuzla had been struggling in quiet dignity long before the Srebrenica evacuations attracted the world spotlight, doing what it could to care for its own 120,000 residents and some 60,000 refugees there since the war began.

For months, Tuzla was sealed off by Bosnian Serb road blockades imposed after Serb-dominated Yugoslav troops were forced to fight their way out of downtown barracks. They were trying to withdraw with heavy weapons they had earlier agreed to leave behind.

Tuzla exhausted its municipal food stocks by sharing them with the refugees it sheltered in homes, schools, gymnasiums, and any other available spaces. Residents also divided their own meager reserves with the newcomers.

City officials organized systems to distribute food and financial aid, kept roughly 30 percent of the heavy industry operating, and provided power to all of central Bosnia. Tuzla's poorly armed defenders held out against the much stronger Bosnian Serb forces.

All of this was possible because Tuzla, unlike almost every other part of Bosnia, managed to preserve harmony between Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. Most of its people shared a vision of Tuzla as a miniature version of what they thought the world desired in Bosnia: a multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural model of tolerance for the tumult-torn Balkans.

Residents and city officials scorn the international peace plan authored by United Nations mediator Cyrus Vance and European Community mediator Lord David Owen, which would divide the republic into 10 ethnic-based provinces. But they grudgingly accept it because they want the blood-letting to end.

AS Bosnian Serb forces close in on Srebrenica, Tuzla's economic and ethnic strength is in deep trouble. On April 13, Serb shells pounded Srebrenica, one of only a few pockets still held by Muslims in eastern Bosnia, killing more than 50 civilians.

The Serb onslaught and the influx of half-starved, shell-shocked women, children, and elderly have led to mounting anti-Serb sentiments that are shaking Tuzla's multiethnic bedrock. The influx has also placed new strains on Tuzla's flagging resources. International donations cover the needs of only about 80 percent of the refugees here.

Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb forces maintain their road blockades. And nationalist Bosnian Croat militias can close at will the network of back roads and mud-choked mountain tracks that since late last year have formed the city's only link to the outside.

To survive as it is, Tuzla must have international assistance in improving that lifeline, as well as in food, additional trucks, spare parts, fuel, and medicines. Its people are waiting to see if the world community will help them as it is helping others, or if it will turn its attention elsewhere after the fate of Srebrenica is decided and the television crews go home.

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