I REACHED this crucial East Bosnian stronghold by land from Sarajevo on April 16 - just prior to the upsurge in fighting in central Bosnia that has cut off most road access to Tuzla.
Fighting in and around the towns of Zenica, Vitez, and Kiseljak has shut down United Nations convoy access from the Adriatic, which had been providing more than 80 percent of the humanitarian relief to Tuzla and Srebrenica. The food situation in Tuzla is becoming critical. Although inventories of supplies are hard to pin down, some local officials say that flour reserves are down to five days. Though there is some additional cushion, there is clearly not much time left.
Since my arrival, I have concentrated on pressing for contingency arrangements to receive a large influx of people displaced for Srebrenica. Bosnian officials, for the moment, are stressing the need to deliver humanitarian assistance to Srebrenica, which they hope will be maintained as a safe haven now that a Canadian UN company has been deployed there. Maintaining the safe haven in Srebrenica is conceivable - but only if the Serbs realize that renewed shelling would provoke immediate air strikes. Protec ting Srebrenica is a long shot, but it is worth the effort. If successful, the East Bosnian towns of Gorazde and Zepa should be similarly designated as safe havens.
But contingency plans in Tuzla to receive an additional 30,000 or more Bosnians from Srebrenica must take place quickly. This will require major outside efforts. The task is massive, requiring far more trucks and fuel, vast shipments of food and additional shelter material.
Until more adequate preparations are in place, a mass evacuation could turn into a disaster. At a minimum, the Serbs will have to countenance an evacuation preparation and implementation that will take many days. Again, the credible threat of punitive air strikes should they attack civilians will be crucial.
Several actions are needed to put in place the resources to support Tuzla and Srebrenica whether the people stay in place or evacuate:
* Air support for the Canadians in Srebrenica. Given that the cease-fire is unresolved, heavy Serb attacks on Srebrenica remain a strong possibility. The Canadians will then either be subject to attack or forced to withdraw. UN Commander Philippe Morillon has once again taken a firm stand to protect Srebrenica and announced that an attack against the town with Canadians deployed there would be viewed as an attack against UN forces. They would therefore have the right to return fire to protect themselves and civilians.
But because the Canadians do not have adequate resources to counter heavy automatic weapons ground fire or artillery, this policy can only be a credible deterrent if they have the ability to call in air support. In order to preserve the cease-fire and the UN demilitarized safe haven in Srebrenica, the United States should join Britain in guaranteeing that such support will be provided to the Canadians in Srebrenica. The Serbs must understand this in advance if the cease-fire is to be preserved.
* Reopen the Tuzla airport. The US should take the lead in getting this done. This means ensuring that Serbs will not shell the field. I was pleased to hear that the UNHCR, the humanitarian wing of the UN operation, is calling to open the airport. Since the US government's Inter-agency Task Force has made this recommendation, there is a general consensus that this step should be taken. Opening the Tuzla airport is technically feasible without delay. The field can receive large cargo planes and is an exce llent facility. If the Sarajevo airport can operate, this one can too.
Perhaps just as important as a supply line to Tuzla is the need to provide a symbol to the nearly 200,000 residents and refugees there that they have not been forgotten. Opening the Tuzla airport would be a tremendous morale boost to the population. Negotiations with the Serbs should commence immediately or, even better, UNPROFOR, the UN forces, should declare the airport open with the understanding that Serbian artillery attacks will be answered from the air.
Bosnian military groups, using airfield offices, should be removed prior to opening the airport under UN aegis; a senior UNPROFOR official should formally open it. This might encourage the Serbs to stop their shelling of the airport.
* Press Croatians to end fighting in central Bosnia. All governments should press Croatia at the highest level and the UN should prepare sanctions to be implemented if Croatia does not take active steps to rein in local forces fighting in central Bosnia. President Franjo Tudjman does have that ability to control the Croat militia forces fighting in Bosnia and should be encouraged in the strongest possible terms to do so.
* Open major roads leading to Tuzla to convoy traffic. Once the security situation has been addressed, we must address a second problem: the dirt. Tertiary roads now being used by the convoys will increasingly be caught in the spring mud. Use of major roads would permit operation of 20-ton trucks that cannot pass on back roads. This would require security understanding among all parties.
* Accelerate food deliveries to the Metkovic warehouse from where the UNHCR convoys depart. Presently, even if security restraints were removed and the major roads to Tuzla were opened, there is far too little food projected for the WFP/UNHCR pipeline, which is currently empty.
Srebrenica is the last opportunity to salvage the safe-haven concept. All here are gratified that the Canadians are on the ground - it has been quiet since they arrived. But if the US is serious about drawing the line on the spread of ethnic cleansing to Kosovo and Macedonia, this line must first be drawn at Srebrenica, Gorazde, and Zepa. The Serbs must understand this, or there may be no hope for peace in the Balkans.