THE convoy of nine fuel trucks had taken two weeks to reach the approaches to Sarajevo. Setting off from a United Nations depot at Metkovic in Croatia, they had been turned back three times by Bosnian Croat forces as they tried to cross the border into Bosnia-Herzegovina.
But it was on the last leg into Sarajevo that they ran into real trouble. Although the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had obtained prior clearance from the Bosnian Serb command, the convoy was held up by an unruly band of Serb fighters manning a checkpoint at a town called Ilidza.
They demanded first half, then all of the fuel. Tempers frayed, tension rose. The Serbs brought up a tank and pointed its gun at the fuel trucks. More than a hundred armed men - soldiers, police, and militia - gathered, some threatening the convoy with armor-piercing grenades.
After a tense standoff, the convoy finally was able to appease the Bosnian Serbs and buy its way to safety by unloading half the transformer oil it was carrying and one truck of diesel fuel. There were sighs of relief when the trucks finally rolled into the UN-controlled Sarajevo airport on the night of June 30.
The jettisoned fuel was in fact destined for Serb areas in any case. But its extortion at gunpoint was a prime example of the dangers and chaos with which the UNHCR - the lead relief agency operating in former Yugoslavia - has to contend every day as it tries to help the battered people of Bosnia to survive.
"It was yet another example of the military terrorism we often have to face," says Tony Land, the UNHCR delegate in Sarajevo who helped negotiate the convoy's release. "You could hardly call it negotiations - we were just trying to get our people and vehicles out safely."
What opens doors for the UNHCR is its humanitarian mission and its prestige, says Santiago Romero-Perez, a UNHCR official at United Nations headquarters in New York. "Everyplace in the world where we work it's on the basis of this acceptance, [but in Bosnia] we get shot at, we get robbed, we get imprisoned, we get beaten," says Mr. Romero-Perez. More and more, he adds, "the humanitarian aspect of any problem" is being viewed in political terms.
Rapacity is not the only problem the UNHCR's convoys face at the hundreds of checkpoints that have sprung up throughout Bosnia. Petty obstructionism is another.
On July 1, another relief convoy, this time carrying much-needed food for the besieged capital, was held up at a Bosnian Serb checkpoint on the road from Kiseljak. After searching the trucks, the Serbs discovered that the convoy was carrying one flak jacket and one helmet more than were registered on the manifest.
They insisted the trucks could not proceed with the offending items, nor send them back separately to Kiseljak. So the entire convoy turned around rather than hand over the extra jacket and helmet to the Serbs.
"It is getting worse every day," says Peter Kessler, UNHCR spokesman. "Recently, we had 800 tons of food stacked up in 80 trucks on the border with Croatia, because the Bosnian Croats cut off all aid convoys for two days."
The latest twist, introduced by the Bosnian Serbs, was an attempt to impose a levy of $340 for each relief truck entering the "Serbian Republic" they have declared in the areas they control.
The UNHCR turned down the demand - which had been formally conveyed in a letter from the Bosnian Serb leadership. Over the weekend, UN convoys trying to enter Bosnia from Serbia were turned back when they refused to pay the toll.
As with the fuel trucks, the UNHCR sometimes has to compromise to get the relief through.
Last week, a convoy of food and medicine destined for the besieged Muslim enclave of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia was held up for five days because the Bosnian Serbs objected to it proceeding with a military escort from the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR). Although that is the function that UNPROFOR is intended to carry out, UNHCR decided in the end to shed the escort, and the convoy went on unprotected, although Gorazde was then under heavy shelling.
"We have been willing to push the level of those risks here further than we've pushed them anywhere else in the world," says Mr. Land. "We've had people killed and wounded. It's hard to see how much bigger risks we can take without simply losing our personnel or regularly losing our cargo to the men with the most weapons."
These are some of the factors on the ground which, combined with "donor fatigue" at the pipeline's source, obliged UNHCR to announce last week that it has to cut its relief rations to nearly two million people in central Bosnia by up to 50 percent for the next two months.
Some 1.4 million people in central Bosnia who are entirely dependent on relief handouts will find their survival ration of about 530 grams (18.5 ounces) of food per person per day cut by half. For the estimated 380,000 people in embattled Sarajevo, the ration will be cut by 20 percent.
"Things all across Bosnia are desperate," says UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler. "There's just not enough food in the pipeline, because the donor countries aren't contributing enough food and money for the necessary supplies. And if there are further disruptions on the ground, we may have to extend the cut beyond September."
EVEN once the convoys get through, the problems are not over. In Sarajevo, what food there is often gets stuck in warehouses for lack of fuel to distribute it. In most areas, there is a measure of gangsterism and racketeering which prevents some supplies getting to those most in need.
International Red Cross physician Claudius Rudin-Lowry, who spent five days in the besieged Muslim enclave of Gorazde, said that relief supplies dropped by air were being seized by gangs who sold them for profit. He said supplies were monopolized by local people, and that virtually none of the aid was reaching the 38,000 refugees from other areas who had crowded into the enclave for safety.
Land has few illusions about what the relief effort can achieve. "Even if we succeed in what we're trying to do, we're not solving the problem, we're just reducing the number of people who might die for lack of sustenance," he says.