Bosnia Appeal: Bravery of the meals brigade: Joanna Gibbon talks to the head of one of the charities our readers

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WHAT shocked Mike Whitlam, who as director general of the British Red Cross made his first visit to Sarajevo last week, was the intensity of the shelling and the accompanying noise. 'Sarajevo is a pretty miserable place: noisy, bitterly cold and very tense,' he says.

He had planned an overnight visit to the city but instead was forced to stay five days. The problems began when the carrier plane Mr Whitlam arrived in was attacked as it unloaded its 45 tons of food aid. A shell exploded just 20 metres away from one of the transport lorries and injured one of the workers. As the attack worsened the plane was forced to take off still carrying half its load. The airport has been closed ever since.

At the moment there is enough food for the 380,000 inhabitants of Sarajevo, but there is mounting concern within the Red Cross and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees - the two main providers of food and warmth - that if the airport remains closed for another week people will begin to starve. The Red Cross planes bring in wheatflour, beans, sugar, oil, corned beef, pasta, tea, tinned vegetables and detergent - all basic necessities; also, they have warm clothes, boots, stoves and candles.

Mr Whitlam came to see one of the Red Cross's main projects in Sarajevo: the running of 17 soup kitchens, in former restaurants and cafes, which provide a hot meal each day to 18,000 of the city's most vulnerable inhabitants. This includes the elderly, the handicapped and the sick.

Mr Whitlam visited several soup kitchens and talked to workers who, because the supplies of electricity and water are so inconsistent, start their day at 3am. 'The gas supply is slightly better at night so they need to start cooking the stew of rice or pasta, mixed with corned beef and tinned vegetables, very early. It is a bit boring to eat but it is the main meal of the day, providing 2,000 calories, for those who cannot collect fuel or fend for themselves,' explains Mr Whitlam. A hot drink of cocoa is also on offer. Some of the recipients eat at the soup kitchens but most collect their food and eat it elsewhere.

If people cannot collect their own meal they can either send friends - everyone has a registration card to prevent fraud - or have the food delivered by volunteers. 'They are known as 'meals on heels'. They have to carry heavy loads on foot, dodging bullets and shells; it is highly dangerous,' says Mr Whitlam. He came across one 70-year-old man who, although not entitled to a meal himself, walks four kilometres each day, carrying meals for his friends.

Although it sounds almost cliched, Mr Whitlam feels that the local community treated its most vulnerable members with much compassion. 'It is a bit like the Blitz. They are all prepared to help each other. They share fuel, sit around the fire together and talk. There is a great feeling of camaraderie,' he says.

The Red Cross has also undertaken to distribute regular life-saving supplies to 30,000 people who have lost their homes and are now living in either collective shelters or with host families. Again, this will be threatened unless the airport opens soon.

It is also refurbishing Sarajevo's Kosevo Hospital, where Mr Whitlam saw shrapnel being removed from a man's head. 'It is very difficult, they can't rely on the electricity for X-rays and there is not much anaesthetic - I saw the man moving on the operating table.'

Life in Sarajevo seems to be one of avoiding gunfire, trying to keep warm and daring to go further into the hills to collect wood for fuel; some people only collect at night, maintaining it is safer then. Bundles of wood can cost 30 times as much as a doctor's monthly wage at a local hospital. Mr Whitlam was so cold at night - his hotel room had plastic sheeting over a blown-out window - that he slept with all his clothes on, including his bulletproof vest.

The Independent Bosnia Appeal has so far raised pounds 225,297.24. The money has been sent in by readers to help 15 charitable organisations operating in bitter winter conditions to ease the plight of the 2.7 million people in former Yugoslavia who are entirely dependent on aid. For every donation to one or more of the 15, the Independent will add 10 per cent, up to pounds 30,000.

If you would like to support a charity, please send a separate cheque for each donation, made payable to the organisation - with the wording as below - and send to: Bosnia Appeal, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

1 War Child; 2 Victims of War Appeal (former Yugoslavia) - this for the Red Cross; 3 Care; 4 Cafod (Bosnia); 5 Christian Aid (Bosnia); 6 Edinburgh Direct Aid; 7 Feed the Children; 8 Help the Aged Former Yugoslavia Appeal; 9 Islamic Relief Bosnia Fund; 10 Marie Stopes International (Bosnia); 11 Oxfam; 12 The Refugee Council; 13 Save the Children Fund; 14 Scottish European Aid; 15 UNA Trust Bosnia.

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