'I think the dark days are almost over': Emma Daly flew into Tuzla as the UN's envoy brought the first aid flight to reach the besieged Bosnian town for two years

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A UNITED NATIONS Ilyushin 76 dropped from the sky through thick cloud and icy rain and into Tuzla airport yesterday, opening a vital air bridge to more than a million people in the Muslim heartland of central Bosnia besieged for 23 months by Bosnian Serb forces.

The Ilyushin, which flew from Zagreb carrying Yasushi Akashi, the UN envoy to the former Yugoslavia; General Bertrand de Lapresle, UN force commander in the region, and 22 tons of aid, was the first aircraft to land at Dubrave, six miles south of Tuzla, in almost two years. It is proof of the UN's success in extending its tentacles across the war zone.

It was also a triumph for the peace-keepers and aid workers who have struggled against the obstinacy and violence of the Bosnian factions to feed and protect the people of Tuzla.

Shell craters - scars of Serbian artillery assaults on the airport - were clearly visible from our French UN Puma helicopter hovering above the main runway. Much of the airfield is heavily mined and cordoned off by razor wire.

'This is a very happy day for all of us,' Mr Akashi said on the runway. 'There's a new positive momentum for a ceasefire, disengagement, the establishment of a durable peace and improvement of the life of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina . . . I think the dark days are almost over.'

General Rasim Delic, the Bosnian government troop commander, born near Tuzla, was happy to be home: 'I always feel good here and I feel great because the airport was opened.' But he added: 'I will feel much better when the planes start coming regularly. This was just one visit from Akashi . . . if one plane has landed it does not mean the war is over.'

Despite the exemption granted to Mr Akashi yesterday, the Serbs are still refusing to allow aid flights - as opposed to military aircraft from the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) - into Tuzla.

Mr Akashi said: 'Humanitarian flights have been negotiated for more than a month and the unresolved issue is the question of liaison officers from both sides.' The Serbs want to station officers at the airfield to ensure that aid flights do not carry military equipment - a suggestion strongly opposed by the Bosnian government.

Mr Akashi has suggested a compromise that might involve placing Serbian officers at Zagreb or Split, where aid flights are loaded. In an attempt to placate the Serbs, the UN has agreed to place Russian military observers at the airport - and yesterday five Russians, UN civilian police, searched Mr Akashi's cargo diligently, sifting through sacks of flour, seeds, educational material and medical supplies for signs of illegal weapons, explosives, uniforms or drugs - anything that could succour the Bosnian forces.

Although General de Lapresle said yesterday's flight was 'more than a symbol', the delivery of aid by air is less important now that land convoys are travelling relatively freely; a single aid flight can deliver roughly half what an average land convoy carries and is far more


Still, for the people of Tuzla, food remains in short supply, although black market prices have dropped dramatically in the past fortnight, on expectations that the UN will succeed in increasing supplies.

Naza Selimovic, a refugee from Zvornik, 54 and looking 20 years older, was pleased to see Mr Akashi in town, but emphasised: 'I would just like to have enough food to eat. It doesn't matter if it's cheap or expensive because we don't have any money. I think the airport will help - I hope so, because we have suffered a lot.'