The Broader Picture: Staying alive in Gorazde

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The Independent Culture
IN THE space of a year, the eastern Bosnian town of Gorazde has changed beyond recognition. Before war descended on Bosnia-Herzegovina last April, Gorazde was a small and unremarkable town on the Drina river. These days, Gorazde is known world-wide as a symbol of Muslim resistance in the face of Serbian efforts to conquer all eastern Bosnia and expel its non-Serb population.

Survival has been difficult. For months, there has been no electricity or running water. Temperatures have been below freezing-point regularly this winter; a number of weak and elderly people have died from cold in the mountain trails outside the town. Serbian forces all but surround Gorazde, and every day the town shakes to the monotonous thud of artillery and mortar shells. Not long ago, the minarets of a mosque near the Drina took a direct hit. Like most of Bosnia's Muslims, who constituted slightly more than 1.9m of Bosnia's pre-war population of 4.4m, the people of Gorazde are not fervently Islamic. They are Slavs who converted to Islam under the Ottoman Empire but whose outlook is overwhelmingly secular and European. The mosque is, nevertheless, an important symbol of nationhood, an institution which protects them from attempts by militant Serbs and Croats to strip them of their separate identity.

Gorazde is not suffering the extreme deprivation visible in other Muslim enclaves of eastern Bosnia. Since last April, its population has more than doubled, to about 70,000, as refugees have streamed in from nearby Serbian-controlled areas. But there is little evidence of starvation. Children still play in the streets with toy guns. There is plenty of wood for fuel, cut down in the forests and hauled into the town. Fishermen go out for their daily catch. Bread is in short supply, but the town's defenders make sure that the sick and elderly do not go hungry. There is a Muslim-controlled supply camp in the mountains beyond the town, to which the strongest men make repeated, gruelling trips.

Having survived the winter, Gorazde has less reason to fear the coming weeks than the Muslim town of Srebrenica to the north. Srebrenica is, at present, the only other key centre of Muslim resistance in eastern Bosnia. Hunger, disease, and a steady shift in the military balance against them are threatening the ability of the town's 60,000 inhabitants to hold out. This month, United States air-drops of food and medical supplies have been targeted at Srebrenica rather than Gorazde.

Should Srebrenica fall, the people of Gorazde will need even more determination and ingenuity. The odds are not entirely against them. Their successful defence of the town has absorbed considerable Serbian resources and enabled Muslim counter-attacks elsewhere in eastern Bosnia, which mean the military picture is not as one-sided as it may seem to the outside world. But Gorazde is more than just a factor in the Bosnian military equation. It stands, almost alone, as a pillar of defiance against a perverted attempt to achieve racial purity in south-eastern Europe. Few parts of the continent are as striking as the Drina valley, where mountains plunge to the deep green river, and timber houses stand on the banks with canoes moored in front. This beautiful scenery will be poisoned for a long time if Gorazde falls.

Photographs by Steve Connors

(Photographs omitted)