Airport opening revives Tuzla tradition of hope

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The Independent Online
EVEN before war engulfed Bosnia- Herzegovina in April 1992, Tuzla was a city that stood for tolerance, human dignity and the hope of a better future. Against all odds, and despite the savagery of the war elsewhere in Bosnia, Tuzla has succeeded in maintaining the best of its traditions.

Yasushi Akashi, the United Nations special envoy who arrived in Tuzla yesterday to open the airport for the first time in two years, understood the significance of the moment.

'For the people of Tuzla and the entire population of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the opening of the airport means the arrival of peace at long last,' he said.

If the Bosnian war as a whole represented the triumph of frenetic nationalism over communal harmony, this was never quite true in Tuzla's case. In the last elections before the war, Tuzla was the only region in Bosnia where voters brought to power a supranational political leadership.

It was a city of hope, a flame that refused to be completely extinguished. During the war, relations among Tuzla's Muslims, Serbs, Croats and people of mixed nationality have sometimes been tense, but they have not been poisoned to the same extent as, for example, in Banja Luka, a city of similar size in northern Bosnia that is in Serbian hands.

Bosnian Serb propagandists have often accused the Muslim majority in Tuzla of terrorising local Serbs and preventing them from leaving the region. But few if any of the 10,000 to 20,000 Serbs who live in Tuzla complain of discrimination. On the contrary, many share food and housing with their Muslim neighbours.

The Tuzla region, which spreads across two valleys in north-eastern Bosnia is the largest under the control of the Muslim-led Bosnian government.

It contains about 465,000 people, or slightly more than one in 10 of Bosnia's pre-war population. One out of every three people in Tuzla is a Muslim refugee who fled to the region after being driven out of his or her home by Serbian insurgents in eastern Bosnia.

Life in Tuzla has been less of a pitiful struggle for survival than in Mostar, Maglaj, Srebrenica and other parts of Bosnia. Buildings are still intact and UN relief convoys have got through. But it has been far from easy.

Thousands of refugees, mainly women and children, fill schools and hospitals. The city is overcrowded and would have collapsed without international humanitarian aid deliveries.

Permanent shortages of fuel have all but emptied Tuzla's streets of traffic. Inevitably, though, some car owners work the black market, paying 15 German marks ( pounds 6) for a litre of petrol.

More serious has been the lack of medicines and equipment at the main hospital. Antibiotics, pain- killers and anaesthetics have all been in short supply. One doctor, Vladimir Pavic, estimated last May that the hospital had enough anaesthetics to last 10 days.

Tuzla, famous for its salt and coal mines, has seen its industry grind to an almost complete halt in the last two years. Chemicals and cement factories stand idle. The electric power station has often run at no more than 20 per cent capacity.

The worst problem has been food. The influx of refugees has meant that there has never been enough to go around. The Tuzla council tries to provide refugees with at least a slice of bread, a bowl of beans and some tea each day. But pre-war residents of Tuzla have been forced to turn their little gardens into vegetable plots and to plough wooded hills.

Many refugees are poorly educated Muslim peasants who suffered the most ruthless treatment at the hands of Serbian forces in the Drina valley region of eastern Bosnia in the spring and summer of 1992. Their experiences radicalised them and provided some ground for militant Muslim nationalism.

If the three-way partition of Bosnia into Serbian, Croatian and Muslim sectors had gone ahead, as envisaged under last year's European Union-United Nations peace plan, then Tuzla, not Sarajevo, would have become the most important zone of the artificial Muslim mini- state.

Then the radicalism of Tuzla's refugees might have had profound implications for the political direction of Muslim Bosnia.

That prospect has receded now that Bosnia's Muslims and Croats have agreed to form a federation linked economically with Croatia. Although the exact boundaries of the federation have not been defined the risk that Tuzla may turn into a European version of the West Bank has been averted for the moment.

The opening of Tuzla airport has more symbolic than practical importance. It was closed for fear that surrounding Serbian forces would attack planes attempting to take off and land there. But while it may once have been crucial to the international aid effort in Bosnia, that is not the case now.

The apparent end of the Muslim- Croat war, and the lull in fighting on some other fronts, mean that the UN has been able to increase its aid deliveries by road to central Bosnia, the worst affected area. UN figures show that aid targets are being met for the first time in many months.

The real significance of the open ing of Tuzla airport is that it keeps up the momentum for a general Bosnian settlement. It represents

a breakthrough of the type that will be needed if the Muslims, Serbs and Croats are to be persuaded to lay down their weapons once and for all.

(Photograph omitted)