Bosnia's 'Safe Areas': West sets the stage for a human tragedy: The creation of UN 'safe' refugee zones proceeds apace. In these disease-ridden camps thousands of orphaned Muslim children, with no hope for the future, will turn to crime or terrorism

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The Independent Online
WHILE the United Nations presses on with plans to set up six 'safe areas' for Muslims in Bosnia, most senior UN officials serving in the former Yugoslavia privately dismiss the plan as a catastrophe, saying it is viable neither in the short nor the long term.

The latest events confirm their suspicions. At the weekend the UN Security Council voted to send heavily armed peace-keepers to protect the six designated 'safe areas' of Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihac, Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa. But on the ground, Bosnian Serb forces stepped up the bombardment of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia, flattening and burning 40 villages inside the district, according to Bosnian Radio. The Serbs have not even let an advance party of UN observers into the town, let alone peace-keepers.

Another 'safe area', at Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, is a frightful portent of what the plan means in practice. The UN has established a fragile peace round this refugee-swollen enclave of 50,000. But it has only done so by disarming the town's Muslim defenders. The Serbs have stopped bombarding the town - but only because they no longer have to. Now they can starve the 'safe area' to death at their leisure. They do not permit UN forces to take in basic foodstuffs to the inhabitants, or tents to shelter the homeless. They will not even allow the UN to set up a regular water supply.

With Srebrenica as an example, many UN refugee workers describe the use of the term 'safe area' as a mockery. 'The 'safe areas' will not even be Indian reservations, but prison camps,' said a refugee official in Belgrade.

A source in the UN defined the biggest flaws: 'The plan will freeze the military situation on the ground. The 'safe areas' have no chance of becoming viable - already they are turning into permanent refugee camps. Politically it contradicts the Vance-Owen plan for Bosnia. It is deeply unfair, as the Serbian side keep their arms while the Muslims will be disarmed. We are just setting the stage for a long-term war of skirmishes.'

One of the absurdities of the UN plan is that it proposes to box up Bosnia's largest and youngest ethnic group into the smallest possible area. Muslims made up 44 per cent of Bosnia's 4.5 million population before the war and the percentage was rising. The birth-rate for Croats and Serbs is very low. Most of their families have two children, and many only one. By contrast, Muslim families often have half a dozen or even more.

The 'safe areas' of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde are being put forward as a temporary solution for Bosnian Muslims. But everyone knows that this is a cruel deception. The 'safe areas' will be permanent camps, where thousands of fatherless Muslim children will face the prospect of numbingly frustrating lives spent inside tiny, disease-ridden pockets, with nothing to do except riot or rot. With no work and no prospect of work, the overwhelmingly youthful population of the 'safe areas' are certain to turn to crime or to terrorism. Sources inside the UN's military wing, Unprofor, are also certain that the plan is not feasible. There are not enough troops. To place cordons round six 'safe areas' would require some 10,000 new peace-keepers to supplement 7,800 soldiers and 70 military observers already in Bosnia.

So far, few countries have shown any willingness to cough up this extra manpower. Already, there are not enough troops to keep the existing UN peace-keeping operation going in Croatia, where the Nigerian battalion is pulling out. Some Islamic countries and Russia seem keen to provide soldiers. But that is a poisoned chalice the United Nations would do better to avoid. Islamic troops in Bosnia would be a red rag to the Orthodox Bosnian Serbs. In the same way, Orthodox Russians would provoke a furious response from Muslims and Catholic Croats.

UN military commanders in Bosnia are angry that the Security Council altered their mandate at the weekend without warning. The peace- keepers were originally sent to Bosnia to escort humanitarian aid convoys. They have no combat role and are lightly armed. But under the new resolution, UN forces in the 'safe areas' will be heavily armed and authorised to repel attacks. In the last resort, they will be able to summon air strikes against their assailants.

The UN military wonders where this leaves peace-keepers outside the 'safe areas'. They will still, presumably, be escorting humanitarian aid convoys in other parts of Bosnia, and will still be lightly armed. They fear being exposed to instant reprisals, especially from the Serbs, if there is trouble in the 'safe areas'. Their fears are not paranoia. Attacks on peace- keepers in Bosnia are multiplying, and not just from the Bosnian Serb side. While two Danish UN drivers were killed by Serb shelling in Maglaj, in eastern Bosnia, last week, Bosnian Muslims shot dead three Italian aid workers in Gornji Vakuf.

Some UN officials say the only long-term solution for Bosnia is to turn the whole republic into a UN trusteeship. This would require huge financial assistance, not just for humanitarian relief but to rebuild the country's industry, as well as an enormous infusion of personnel to rebuild Bosnia's political and legal systems. Perhaps that could have been done a year ago, before the Bosnian Serbs seized control of more than 70 per cent of Bosnia, expelled the non- Serb population and set up a Bosnian Serb state. But no one wanted to attempt the task then, and no one wants to do it now. The grisly business of 'ethnic cleansing' has gone too far.



At least 60,000 residents and refugees live in Gorazde and surrounding villages, compared with 37,000 before the war. Their enclave on the Drina river has been under Serbian siege for more than a year. It was the last centre of organised Muslim resistance in eastern Bosnia, but the Serbian noose has tightened significantly in the last month. Serbian forces recently cut off a mountain trail used to transport food and ammunition to Gorazde. Along this trail, Muslim men and women with their horses used to make nightly trips of 12 miles in each direction to collect provisions. But Muslim units in the mountains say they have been unable to arrange any deliveries since 25 May.

The Bosnian Serbs have also repeatedly blocked UN aid convoys trying to enter the town. Some US air-drops of food and medical supplies have reached Gorazde. Almost every day Serbian artillery shells land in the town, damaging buildings and killing a few people. Last winter, people chopped down trees in nearby forests for fuel, but some elderly and weak people still died in sub-zero temperatures.


Between 16,000 and 20,000 Muslims are trapped in the mountain enclave of Zepa. Several thousand are refugee children, including orphans, from other parts of eastern Bosnia. Zepa came under attack when Serbian forces launched their initial drive through eastern Bosnia in April and May last year. Because of the region's remoteness, the exact boundaries of the enclave are still unclear, but its inhabitants are cut off from all the main supply routes.

Heavy Bosnian Serb artillery attacks last month neutralised the Muslims' resistance, and many people went into hiding. Some residents took refuge in the surrounding hills, where one recently discovered makeshift campsite contained several hundred people living in shelters made from tree branches. However, UN staff describe conditions in Zepa as being marginally better than those in Gorazde. Even though there is no electricity, and health services are almost non-existent, water is available and sanitation facilities are adequate. Most humanitarian needs still have to be supplied by air drops.

There is a small force of Ukrainian soldiers patrolling the enclave, as well as a French medical and engineering unit and nine military observers. The UN is currently holding talks with Bosnian Serb and Muslim leaders about the possibility of disarming the Zepa area.


In the covered market near the old Orthodox church, scrawny shoppers clutching grubby plastic bags flit nervously around the stalls, gazing enviously at the pathetic display. An old lettuce. A bag of six oranges. A tray of tiny eggs. Takers are few. That dirty lettuce has a price tag of 10 Deutschmarks on it. The man selling the bag of oranges wants 15DM - a king's ransom in a city where hardly anyone has an income.

Sarajevo's inhabitants, now estimated at 200,000, compared with 350,000 a year ago, wholly depend on the United Nations for their day-to- day survival. There is little open space in the besieged city to grow anything. Some people tend fruit and vegetables on their balconies. A privileged few keep chickens in their living rooms.

The biggest difference between Sarajevo and Tuzla is that the Bosnian capital is entirely surrounded and under active siege by the Bosnian Serbs. While Tuzla gets the occasional shell, Sarajevo is always under fire. This dramatically affects the UN operation. Some land routes into Sarajevo are 'sniper alleys', where UN troops escorting convoys risk their lives. Shelling disrupts the distribution of aid in the city. The UN are occupied mending broken electricity and water supplies, as well as feeding people.

Half the aid reaching Sarajevo arrives by air. The airlift began in July last year and undoubtedly saved the city from starvation by the Bosnian Serbs and eventual surrender. But flights cannot permanently feed 350,000, with no other resources. Nearly half the 30,000 tons of food brought into the city this year came by road. Half came from Belgrade and half from Split in Croatia.

A big problem is that the UN never managed to get enough food into Sarajevo to build up stocks. The food went straight into hungry mouths. There is no larder to draw upon in times of crisis. Each time the number of convoys into the city falls away, or the airport closes, people miss meals.


The buses run and the electricity works all night. In Tuzla's modern glass-fronted hotel, lifts purr up and down from the crowded cocktail bar to the reception, where off-duty Bosnian soldiers lounge with their girlfriends. In the old Turkish quarter, peasants wrangle over trestles laden with oranges, apples, milk and even meat - an unheard-of luxury in Muslim-held Bosnia.

Tuzla is a rare oasis of normality in the Bosnian nightmare, and one of the few successes in the UN Bosnian aid programme. The large belt of surrounding countryside enables people to supplement their diet with fruit and vegetables. Parks and gardens have been dug up in a frantic attempt to increase the quantity of locally grown produce. The city has its own electricity and water supply. Two to three convoys trundle in from Belgrade each week, feeding an estimated 100,000 refugees. No one remembers hold-ups or extortions at the checkpoints. If the UN's 'safe areas' plan can work anywhere, it should be here.

Although partly surrounded by Bosnian Serbs and sporadically shelled, Tuzla has never been seriously attacked. Bosnian Serbs do not covet the area and the front line with the Serbs on the road to Belgrade has not changed for months. The road from Belgrade is not a battleground, so UN convoys have few problems taking in food.

The city retains tolerant traditions which have vanished from most of Bosnia. After a year of war and a tide of impoverished, traumatised refugees from eastern Bosnia, however, many Serbs and some Croats have left. But the big Serbian Orthodox church is open and has not a pane of glass missing.

Yet despite the appearance of normality, the city depends on the UN even for basic food items now that an influx of refugees has doubled the population to 240,000. The UN brings in wheat flour for bread - the staple diet of Bosnian Muslims - and high-protein foods, milk powder, flour, sugar and yeast for 100,000 refugees each week.


The enclave lies in north-western Bosnia and contains about 300,000 people, including 40,000 refugees. It is vulnerable because it is an overwhelmingly Muslim area, surrounded by Serb-controlled parts of Croatia and Bosnia. Bihac used to be one of Yugoslavia's most successful agricultural regions; it was the hub of the giant food distribution company Agrokomerc. It had a reputation for amicable ethnic relations and witnessed a rural rebellion in 1954 in which Serbs, Croats and Muslims joined forces in the only recorded peasants' revolt in Communist Eastern Europe. But for the last year, Bihac has been sealed off from the world by Bosnian Serb forces allied to units from the self-styled Republic of Serbian Krajina - that is, those parts of Croatia that fell to the Serbs in 1991.

Most Muslims in Bihac are determined that their town should not be turned into a UN 'safe area'. They argue that, despite the Serbs' superior strength, the town's defenders have kept the besiegers at bay. Running water is available, the hospital works and some electricity lines operate. Part of the industrial base in Bihac remains intact, including a plastics factory, a chocolate factory and a brewery. But office buildings, shops, warehouses and homes have suffered from regular Serbian shelling. In the town centre, many buildings are sandbagged against explosions. A typical wartime salary ranges from DM70 ( pounds 28) to DM150 a month.

A census before the war indicated that about 70 per cent of people in the Bihac pocket were Muslims, 18 per cent Serbs and 7 per cent Croats. Few Serbs remain. The international presence is made up of a French battalion and 12 UN military observers.

In Communist times, Bihac boasted a sophisticated military airport. But the Serb-led Yugoslav air force blew up the base last year rather than let it fall into the hands either of Muslim or Croat enemies or of their nominal Krajina Serb allies. Muslims and Croats are allies in Bihac but some Muslims fear that, if Bosnia falls victim to a Serb-Croat partition, then Bihac will suffer the same fate.


An influx of refugees has swollen the population of the Srebrenica enclave to about 50,000 from fewer than 10,000 before the war. The inhabitants are Muslims whose defences collapsed in March under relentless Serbian shelling. They have since been disarmed under a UN- brokered agreement that set up a 15sq km demilitarised zone around Srebrenica, policed by 250 Canadian troops.

However, the Serbs dispute that all weapons have been handed over. They keep a cordon around the enclave, controlling what goes in and out. Srebrenica, described by some relief workers as 'an open jail', has no electricity, and a water shortage increases the risk of disease. The Serbs do not allow materials for reconstruction and temporary housing into the town. Violence, black market exploitation, prostitution and crime - all linked to cigarette smuggling - have become big problems. Children wear ragged clothes made out of parachute material from US aid drops. Some supplies arrive, but distribution is chaotic and people fight desperately to be first to the food.

Leading article, page 21

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