Mostar's Hungry Wait Amid the Rubble


MIRSADA, a Muslim, has her essentials packed into two bags that sit in the corner of her living room in the Bosnian city of Mostar. She expects she'll be expelled from her home any day now and wants to be ready.

She and her neighbors only answer their doors if they hear a knock because the Bosnian Croat soldiers always ring the bell.

At night she stays glued to a weak local radio signal broadcasting faint messages from people trapped on the other side of Mostar. The radio is the only link Muslims on the Croat-controlled side of Mostar have with an estimated 55,000 mostly Muslim residents trapped on the east bank of the Neretva River running through the center of the city. Her boyfriend is one of them.

"It's like London during World War II," she says. "I keep hoping to hear his voice or a message that he is OK, but I'm worried. I haven't hear from him in months, and I don't know if he is alive."

Mostar, to the southwest of Sarajevo, was once a city where tourists flocked for its Ottoman Turkish architecture and cobalt-blue river straddled by eight bridges. Now, after months of fighting between Bosnian Croat and Muslim militias, only one foot bridge remains and the historic architecture has been reduced to rubble.

The river marks the line between the Muslims besieged by Croat forces from the west and Bosnian Serbs in the mountain to the east. Under the Geneva partition plan proposed Aug. 20, the city would become the capital of a Bosnian Croat republic.

Croat forces have blocked aid convoys from reaching the Muslim enclave since June 15, and 55,000 people there are believed to be on the brink of starvation. But a United Nations convoy carrying 200 tons of food was expected to reach the Muslim quarter Aug. 24, having been granted access by the Croats.

"We have to follow this convoy up very quickly with more convoys," said Lyndall Sachs, a UN spokeswoman in Sarajevo. Besides the daily shelling and sniper fire that rings through the streets, there is no water or electricity. Muslim men rounded up

On the Croat side of the city, where Mirsada lives, civilian life is impossible. All Muslims have lost their jobs and only Muslim women and children remain. All Muslim men between the ages of 18 and 60 were rounded up in late June and imprisoned in an effort to "ethnically cleanse" the city.

Prisoners are only released after they sign over all their property to the Bosnian Croat forces and get visas to other countries. The other option is to sign a written agreement to oppose the policies of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and cross front lines to the Muslim-held side of the city.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross estimate the number of prisoners is at least 10,000, but the two organizations have been denied access to all but one of the estimated four detention centers.

"We know four camps where approximately 10,000 people are being held," a UNHCR official says. "But the HVO [Bosnian Croat army] will not allow us to visit and who knows what's going on there.... We are very concerned."

Mirsada's neighbor, Jusef, knows. The former engineering student had just been released after 50 days in captivity after he obtained an exit visa to Italy. "I don't want to leave. This is my home; my mother and some of my friends are still left, but if I don't it means staying a prisoner forever," the young Muslim says. "The other option, now that I'm out, is to try to hide here, but they will eventually find me and take me back."

Jusef was held at the Dretelj petroleum depot near Mostar for 20 days before he was transferred to a helicopter factory in Mostar. In Dretelj, he was locked up in a concrete, windowless warehouse with 450 other men for 20 days. The heat was oppressive.

He was beaten badly four times and had a fractured wrist and broken collarbone. The prisoners sometimes went without food for four days at a time. Jusef lost 33 pounds during his captivity. Human buffers

Detainees, Jusef says, were recruited for the front lines - filling sand bags, digging trenches, and acting as expendable pawns to move the Croat position forward.

"Whenever the HVO needed men, they just came to the camp with a bus and off we went," he says.

When he was taken to the front lines, it was usually in groups with about 70 other prisoners. The worst day was Aug. 13, when four out of his group were killed and about 20 wounded.

"We were just pulling out the dead bodies and wounded men from the trenches," Jusef says. "We were exposed to heavy fire while the HVO soldiers shot over our heads from further back."

An estimated 2,300 prisoners are being detained at the helicopter factory, according to international relief workers allowed to visit. But detainees were fed two meals per day, "of which the quantity had to be discussed," one observer noted.

As Jusef gets set to leave for Italy, Mirsada laments his departure and what has become of Mostar. In her late 20s, she is one of the last people her age in her neighborhood.

"Life is not worth living here anymore," she says. "All the young people have gone. Even Croats don't want to stay, and I'm afraid I'll be left alone here."

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