'Better a PoW than a free man in Maglaj': Emma Daly meets a survivor of the besieged Bosnian town

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The Independent Online
FORTUNE has at last smiled on Srecko Kramaric. After eight months as a prisoner of war in the besieged Maglaj pocket he is a free man again, enjoying the fresh air and unaccustomed calm of Zepce, a Croat-held town south of Maglaj. Mr Kramaric, whose first name means lucky, was released on Saturday during an exchange between two of the area's three competing armies. Maglaj's recent military history is a mosaic of bizarre alliances, as Mr Kramaric explained in telling the story of his capture.

'We were holding the front line north-east of Maglaj against the Serbs. We were there with Muslim soldiers. But when the Zepce conflict began (the Croat and Bosnian government forces turned on one another) the Muslim soldiers surrounded us. It was fairly simple for 300 soldiers to capture 30.'

Mr Kramaric, a Maglaj man, was, like so many Bosnians, the victim of political events far beyond his reach, as Bosnian government forces (BiH) fought the Croatian defence council (HVO), which had allied itself with the Bosnian Serbs. On 24 June he was taken to prison in Maglaj with 34 comrades. 'Conditions were terrible,' he said. 'There were no sanitary facilities, no roof and we got a very small quantity of food.'

One of Mr Kramaric's jobs was to collect food airdropped into Maglaj by the UN. 'It was not too dangerous, as the food fell in a safe area, but physically it was so hard,' he said. 'Some people had horses, but they did not want to use them when they had prisoners to do the work. My family was living in town while I was in prison and there was no serious distribution of food,' he said. 'Conditions are very hard . . . survival is very, very simple: you exchange private possessions for food. Those who could find the airdrops could sell the food or swap it.' During the siege he lost 25kg (55lb).

There was more dangerous work to be done; Mr Kramaric said that in the past two weeks five or six PoWs had been wounded by Serbian shells while building fortifications on the front line. While the HVO and BiH have held a ceasefire since 25 February, the Bosnian Serb army surrounding Maglaj has stepped up the attack. 'I'm not here to send propaganda against the Muslims,' Mr Kramaric said. 'Those people are in hell.' Five days ago two shells killed 33 people. 'There is no difference between the town and the front line,' he added. 'They are shelling everything.'

Some 19,000 people are trapped in the Maglaj pocket, under constant fire and without reliable supplies. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is worried that it may fall within weeks unless the Serbs can be persuaded to allow the UN to enter with aid. But the Serbs are not party to the Croat-Muslim rapprochement - which they underline by firing occasional mortars at Zenica, Travnik and even the British UN base near Zepce.

Joso, an HVO soldier in Zepce, is pinning his hopes on the UN. 'An agreement between two sides can't work with three sides,' he said yesterday. 'Now there is an urgent necessity for UN help. Maglaj must become a UN-protected area - it's the only solution . . . after that the Serbs would have no chance to attack Maglaj. It would be a free town, and so would Zepce.'

Mr Kramaric heard the news of the Croat-Muslim political deal on the radio. 'The Muslims changed completely in the last week - but only the relationship between people. The situation was still terrible,' he said. 'But in Maglaj all the people think the coalition is a chance to continue the war together against the Serbs. It could be the beginning of a new war.'

For now Mr Kramaric is out of the firing line. He and his friend Joso felt sorry for the PoWs who were exchanged the other way. 'I tETHER write errorhink it would be much better to be a prisoner in Zepce than a free man in Maglaj,' he said.