BOSNIAN Serb authorities are hindering United Nations efforts to help more than 110,000 Muslims prepare for their second winter of war in overcrowded, bombed-out enclaves in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, UN officials say.
The problem is adding to the growing ineffectiveness of international aid operations in Bosnia. Fighting between the Muslim-dominated Bosnian Army and Bosnian Croat militias in the central regions has already forced the suspension of relief convoys.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other aid groups are warning that the lives of millions of people may be at risk this winter. The UNHCR has been prevented repeatedly in recent weeks from traveling through Bosnian Serb-held territories with materials - including nails, wood, and plastic sheeting - needed to ``winterize'' severely damaged housing in Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde, UN officials say. Those towns are three of the six Muslim enclaves designated as UN ``safe havens.''
Other supplies also have been blocked, including 65,000 pairs of used shoes donated by the Swedish government that are urgently needed, especially by children.
Conditions are said to be especially appalling in Srebrenica and Gorazde because of the crush of tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from Bosnian Serb ``ethnic cleansing.''
Both towns are desperately short of living space, with up to a half of the housing in each estimated to have been damaged or destroyed by Bosnian Serb bombardments. In Srebrenica, an average of 12 people live in every habitable room, says Lyndell Sachs, the spokeswoman for the UNHCR's Belgrade office. Up to 50 people take shelter in each room of the local school, she says, and the overcrowding and a lack of water have resulted in serious lice infestations.
There are about 45,000 people trapped in Srebrenica, which had a prewar population of about 6,000; roughly 60,000 people, half of them refugees, are in Gorazde. Between 6,000 and 10,000 people are in Zepa. There have been no major assaults on the enclaves since they were declared as safe havens in May.
The Bosnian Serbs have lifted blockades of food and medicine deliveries into the enclaves. But, aid officials say, conditions remain abysmal, and cold weather is setting in.
``These people deserve better,'' Ms. Sachs says. ``You can't keep making them live like animals. What is this going to do to a whole generation of kids?''
UN officials are now waiting to see what will happen when they try in the next few weeks to deliver to Srebrenica some 400 prefabricated houses being provided by the Swedish and Norwegian governments to shelter 5,000 people and ease overcrowding.
More than 90 prefabricated homes are also to be provided to the Bosnian Serbs, says Rune Dahlen of the Swedish Rescue Services Board. ``The Serbs can't say that we don't do anything for them,'' he adds.
The Bosnian Serbs have refused to allow the UNHCR to deliver materials required by the agency's staff in the three enclaves as well as in the Muslim-controlled northeastern city of Tuzla, another of the safe havens, officials say. The materials include communications gear, computers, food, and fuel for relief agencies' vehicles.
The Bosnian Serbs ``don't give any reasons. They just say no,'' Sachs says. UNHCR officials say privately that they believe the Bosnian Serb leadership is impeding assistance to the enclaves in response to the Bosnian Army's ongoing offensive in central Bosnia.
One official disclosed that UN personnel have recently monitored Bosnian Serb troop buildups to the northwest and southeast of Gorazde, which was heavily shelled for several days last week.
``This is a way of pressuring the Muslims because they are making big advances in central Bosnia,'' the official says. ``It's a way of reminding them not to attack Serbian positions.''
The Bosnian Army has been concentrating on seizing territory from Bosnian Croat forces. But its latest success, the capture last Thursday of Vares, brought it close to Bosnian Serb lines north and west of Sarajevo.
UN officials say that the Bosnian Serbs are also trying to coerce the UNHCR into agreeing to demands that the Bosnian Serbs be given 50 percent of all humanitarian supplies even though their needs are not nearly as dire as those of the eastern enclaves.
``Some people in the UN believe they don't want it out of need, but because they simply want to deprive the Muslims of it,'' one official says.
So far, the UNHCR has held firmly against the demands. ``What we don't like is this expectation of a nail for a nail and a shoe for a shoe,'' Sachs says. ``We don't want to be in a position where we are being dictated to.''