Winter Approaches a Town in Bosnia

Convoys of aid stand more chance of getting through Serbian than Croatian territory

WITH a population of 750,000, the Tuzla region is the most populous in Bosnia. Serbs, Croats, Muslims and those of mixed origins choose to stay there.

But Tuzla is at the end of a line of communication that is not working. So at the beginning of Bosnia's second winter at war, the situation there is desperate. Some Serbs and Croats are trying to leave, but most want to stay, in part because the leading official in the region - Tuzla's Mayor Selim Beslagic - is esteemed for his leadership and promotion of inter-ethnic harmony.

The lights are literally going out in Tuzla and northern Bosnia. Electricity is on for limited periods. There is no fuel to be had in the city; the only motorized traffic consists of white United Nations and Red Cross vehicles.

There is other traffic of a more primitive, desperate sort. In this city, which contains the largest power plant in the former Yugoslavia, every available pony, some looking half-starved, has been mobilized to haul firewood from the surrounding forest areas. But there are too many consumers for too few carts. The black market price has risen to about 100 German marks for a small cartload.

Coal-powered electric central heat is off for about 70,000 apartment dwellers. I talked to one young mother who spent the previous night huddled with her two children in their kitchen, crying in fear that they would freeze. Clearly, there is an immediate need to get these apartment dwellers alternative means of heat. Local officials pleaded for more diesel to fuel trucks that could bring in wood for the gerry-rigged stoves that people are fashioning. There was some thought of also bringing in metal sheeting from the town of Zenica for construction of additional stoves; but there is no metal sheeting there either.

For the first year of the war, Tuzla supported itself with its commercial traffic going in and out of the region. But for the last six months or more, commercial and humanitarian traffic from the Dalmatian coast has been cut off by Croatian forces, the HVO. Ironically, more humanitarian aid has been coming via UN High Commissioner for Refugees convoys from the Serbian side than from the Dalmatian coast.

Access through the Serbian and Croatian frontiers for humanitarian convoys is absolutely vital. Sanctions should be invoked if the Croats do not open the access. Currently, more Bosnians are in peril of dying from the blockade by the Croats and the HVO than from any single other cause, except the continuing Serbian intransigence on access.

One key bridge north of Mostar has been blown up, leaving a 150-meter gap. The British military engineers say that it will take 90 days (after equipment and parts are in place) to repair it. Surely this time frame can be shortened.

The Tuzla airport is a first-class airport capable of receiving C-130 and larger aircraft; the field is in good condition and the Bosnians are willing to vacate the airport in favor of a UN team. The Serbs reiterated in Geneva last week that they are adamantly opposed to the opening of the airport. If that is the case, the UN should obtain immediate land access from the Serbs to the Tuzla region or open the airfield unilaterally with a pledge of NATO airstrikes should the Serbs shell the airfield. (This is deemed unnecessary by most relief officials on the ground so long as there is a credible threat of air power to protect the airfield.)

In addition to the blockade on commercial traffic into the Tuzla region, the economy has also been paralyzed by the lack of foreign exchange (there is still no viable local currency). The UN should arrange to bring in cash for the local banks that have ample deposits in Zagreb and elsewhere, but no means of bringing in the currency. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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