Opening lines of communication: Joanna Gibbon reports on how money raised by the 'Independent' Bosnia Appeal is being put to use

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The Independent Culture
TELEPHONE lines might seem commonplace to many, but in East Mostar, Bosnia, where four lines for international calls have just been installed, they are like gold-dust.

Having had no telecommunications with the outside world for more than a year, the 60,000 people - who are living in terrible conditions in this side of the city - are now trying to contact their loved ones. Long queues snake out of the post offices every day, everyone waiting their turn to discover what has happened to their shattered families and friendships.

The four lines, along with six others for official use, have been paid for by readers' money sent via the Independent Bosnia Appeal to the humanitarian aid agency Cafod (Catholic Fund for Overseas Development).

'Contact with families and friends is critical at the moment; people have no idea what has happened, there is much suspicion and distrust,' says Melissa Payson, at the International Rescue Committee, an American agency which has been working on the telephone project with Cafod.

Of the other six telephone lines, one connects the two sides of the city, and others are for use by the police station, the local government office, the hospital, the local Spanish Unprofor battalion and humanitarian aid offices. Ms Payson says that the desperately needed aid work has been painfully slow in getting started. 'The telephones required a ridiculously small amount of money - pounds 4,330 - and yet symbolically they are incredibly important,' she says.

Martin Summers, Cafod's east European desk officer, who has recently visited Mostar, feels that the telephones are also an important confidence-building measure. 'During the last year some people have managed to get messages out with the aid agencies, now the telephones will link them once more with the outside world.' he says.

Mr Summers says that East Mostar no longer has an infrastructure, and that even though the hostilities have ceased, water and electricity supplies are still almost non- existent. He compares it to Stalingrad at the end of the Second World War: 'Devastated, with underfed people wandering around.'

However, now the fighting has subsided, Mr Summers believes that the tension - between the Croats on the western side and the Bosnian Muslims on the eastern - is beginning to ease, albeit slightly. The people in East Mostar are still overcrowded, do not know what they are going to eat or what will happen to them next, but there is now a palpable sense of relief. 'People think: 'At least I have survived.' The sun is shining and they are beginning to walk outside, talk in the streets and lay flowers on graves,' he explains.

After such a battering, it is still too early to feel confident, especially as the war continues in other areas. But Cafod, like other aid agencies, is keen to start reconciliation and reconstruction work, employing local people and producing locally made goods, moving as quickly as possible. 'Giving people constructive things to do, instead of their sitting around doing nothing, solves a lot of psychological as well as physical problems,' he says.

Meanwhile, War Child, another aid charity which Independent readers supported in the appeal, is planning this kind of action, by installing its second mobile bakery in East Mostar. Bill Leeson, who co-founded the charity after filming the war in Bosnia, has just returned from the city and says the bakery is desperately needed. 'Because of the war, people are eating a higher proportion of bread in their diets. We are responding to an emergency plan to meet some of the short-term needs,' he explains.

At present, everyone - inhabitants and refugees - is being supported by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) which brings in food aid. This includes flour for baking bread in people's homes, but Mr Leeson says that this is almost impossible to do with no regular supplies of electricity or running water.

In discussion with the local director of agriculture and the UNHCR, War Child hopes the mobile bakery will produce around 55,000 kilos of bread each week. 'The daily requirement in East Mostar is 35,000 kilos, so a type of rationing will be necessary, with the most vulnerable groups getting some sort of priority,' he says.

Since setting up its first mobile bakery in nearby Medjugorje, Mr Leeson says War Child has learnt much. 'When people first suggested a mobile bakery, I thought you stuck flour in one end and loaves popped out of the other,' he admits.

Difficulties arose when they realised that the large bakery trucks could be targets if driven into very vulnerable spots. Yet the team knew that it must provide bread to those who needed it most, and they were often living in inaccessible, dangerous places.

In turn, this led to problems keeping supply lines open, so the unit could not be as mobile as first planned. Having found a position at Medjugorje, where the population has been highly mobile, War Child then had problem distributing its goods, with rumours abounding that its bread was being sold on the black market. 'We took our loaves to a central spot and then trusted to the goodwill of the local people. We did our best to monitor the distribution,' explains Mr Leeson.

At East Mostar, the bakery will be based in a warehouse on an industrial estate, which needs its water supply reconnecting. War Child is sending out generators and pumps this week to begin work. The charity is hoping that the UNHCR will supply all the flour - about 16 tons a week is needed; but funding for the diesel fuel - about 1,300 gallons per week - has yet to be found.

War Child intends to employ more local people than it did at Medjugorje. 'We had quite a high proportion of UK volunteers running the bakery because there were few local people we could ask for help when things went wrong. Now we know much more about how the bakery works,' says Mr Leeson.

Apart from bringing in much- needed food, Mr Leeson thinks the bakery will be seen as part of the rebuilding of Mostar: 'It's a sign of the place coming to life again.'

(Photograph omitted)

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