Saving Sarajevo: Relief Effort: Aid groups demand end to Tuzla blockade

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The Independent Online
OXFAM and at least eight other international relief organisations called on the United Nations yesterday to end the blockade of the Tuzla region of Bosnia, where hundreds of thousands of people face increasingly desperate conditions. The non-governmental groups recommended that the Bosnian-Croat blockade should be lifted by opening a secure aid route from Croatia's southern Adriatic coast to Tuzla. This route can also be used to send aid to Sarajevo.

'The civilian population of the Tuzla region is being strangled by this blockade,' said Marcus Thompson, Oxfam's emergency director. 'It is vital that essential humanitarian aid is allowed to reach those in desperate need.'

The aid organisations, which included the American group International Rescue, the Norwegian Refugee Council and MSF Holland, said that only 60 per cent of food supplies intended for the Tuzla region in June had arrived. The blockade of commercial traffic in central Bosnia is complete. In the last two weeks there have been food riots in the Tuzla region, and a warehouse used by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was ransacked.

The groups called for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolutions 824 and 836, which declared Tuzla and five other places in Bosnia 'safe areas' for Muslims and urged UN member states to contribute troops to ensure the success of the initiative. 'As professional humanitarian organisations, we are finding the problems expanding beyond the scope of our maximal efforts. At the same time, we are convinced that if the Tuzla region had free access to the outside world, it would be able to take care of itself,' they said.

The UNHCR estimates that the population of the region has fallen to less than 670,000 from about 1.2-1.5 million before the Bosnian war broke out in April 1992. There are more than 226,000 displaced people, 95,000 unemployed, 56,000 pensioners and 25,000 social cases. Efforts to meet the need for both short-term and long- term accommodation have been seriously affected by a lack of construction materials and fuel.

The Tuzla region is the largest UN- designated 'safe area' and, like Sarajevo, was known before the war for its traditionally good relations between Muslims, Serbs and Croats. Although the city of Tuzla has not experienced as much war damage as other Bosnian towns, its health, power and water systems are threatened. The aid groups said that Tuzla's medical centre had been forced to stop all but emergency surgery and there were shortages of gauze and antibiotics.

The aid groups said there was a high probability that Tuzla's electricity system would shut down completely if the city did not receive sufficient diesel fuel soon. Since the water system depends on electricity, the risk would grow that epidemic diseases might break out. Diesel shortages have also restricted agricultural work, meaning this year's wheat harvest may be low.

The most direct route into central Bosnia from the Croatian coast has been blocked for two and a half months, mainly because of frequent clashes between Croatian and Muslim forces. Once allies, the Croats and Muslims have fought battles around the southern city of Mostar, through which the route passes, as well as in central Bosnia. UN personnel in Bosnia say that units from all warring sides exert some control over the road, but that in recent weeks the Croats have shown most reluctance to reopen the aid route.

'The UN Security Council resolutions, passed more than a month ago, were meant to guarantee unimpeded access for humanitarian aid. As yet there has been little evidence on the ground of this happening,' said Mr Thompson of Oxfam.