Dark shadows over Bosnia 'safe areas': More than half a million Muslims will depend on aid. Their communities will become ghettos, prey to disease and fanaticism

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The Independent Online
'BOSNIAN Muslims will be left with a Balkan Lesotho,' Dragoslav Rancic, a Serbian leader, boasted recently. In the light of the agreement by the United States, Russia and Western Europe to set up six 'safe areas' for Bosnian Muslims, his words proved prophetic.

Tuzla, in northern Bosnia, shows the shape of things to come in this tiny Bosnian mini-state, which will be formed out of the disconnected scraps of Bosnia still under Muslim control. Hopelessly overcrowded, sandwiched between hostile Serbs and Croats, poverty-stricken and entirely dependent on international aid, with a high birthrate and a young population, mini-Bosnia looks set to become a breeding ground for terrorism and instability in the heart of Europe.

In Tuzla's industrial suburb of Banovici, more than 60 per cent of the population are refugees, mostly peasants from rural eastern Bosnia. For poverty and an air of hopelessness, Banovici matches anything on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Thousands of refugees live in schools and factories and nearly all are women and small children. Fathers and big brothers are fighting or dead.

Dressed in bedraggled baggy trousers and headscarves, these confused women spend their days rocking back and forth moaning for their lost families, or moping around, washing clothes and hanging them on hedgerows to dry. There is nothing to do in Banovici and will not be in the foreseeable future. In this former mining town not one factory works.

Around the town, people have dug every square foot of land for food. Only a few private gardens are untilled, and wooded hills have turned into ploughed fields. The Tuzla region can never feed its fast-growing population without massive, permanent international aid, but aid agencies are barely aware of places like Banovici, so refugees survive on the meagre resources of Tuzla council - one bowl of beans per day each and a breakfast of tea and a slice of bread.

The line runs from Gradacac in northern Bosnia 130km (85 miles) south to Konjic and then west to Travnik. This will form the triangular boundary of the largest Muslim 'safe area'. At least there is some land to cultivate there. The future for the five smaller 'safe areas' in Bosnia is darker. They will be ghettos, prey to disease and fanaticism.

The UN estimates 350,000 people in Sarajevo depend on UN parcels for survival. In Srebrenica the figure is 45,000. In Zepa the UN is feeding another 16,000, and in Bihac the UN estimates there are 270,000 Muslims. In Gorazde there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Muslims. More than half a million Bosnian Muslims in the five small 'safe areas' will depend on international charity for years to come.

The Muslims are more shattered than angry about the way their communities have been destroyed. When I drove into Banovici, I was struck by the excited faces of hundreds of Muslim children in ragged dresses who ran alongside the car, banging on the sides, hands outstretched for sweets. But if the West thinks it can close the lid on Bosnia by consigning the Muslims to a handful of 'safe areas', it is making a mistake. In a few years, these smiling children with outstretched hands will have become angry, vengeful teenagers, hating the Westerners who both fed and betrayed them as much as they hate the Serbs and Croats who took away their homes, their fathers and their friends.

Leading article, page 21

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