Fear boards the mule train to Mostar: View from a Muslim frontline

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ON A clear night over Mostar, Croatian spotlights light up Hum Hill as if it were Cannes during the film festival. The hill dominates the Neretva valley: whoever controls it controls Mostar, and whoever controls Mostar controls the gateway to central Bosnia.

It is Mostar, not Sarajevo, that has been the site of the fiercest fighting in Bosnia during the past six months.

In the cellar of the devastated building that once housed the local tax office, Esad Humo, commander of the 41st Famous Motorised Mostar brigade, sits at the end of a long table, in the dim light supplied by the diesel generator. 'We will win,' he says. 'We have the heart.'

The anxieties of the six- month siege are etched on his face. Trapped on the east side of the city, 20,000 Bosnian Muslims have been desperately fighting to hold on to their positions, under siege from the Croatian HVO in western Mostar.

Amid the burnt remains of Santiceva Street, Bosnian army soldiers sit in damp, dark cellars, peering through holes at an enemy often only metres away. They pass their days waiting, occasionally locating and 'silencing' snipers.

'My mother is wounded. My brother was killed. My father is wounded. I wish I was somewhere else,' says Almir, a tall, thin 20-year-old with red hair and freckles. Most of the soldiers tell similar stories.

Poorly armed and underequipped, the Muslims have devised elaborate ways to get supplies into the enclave. According to army sources, ammunition is flown by Bosnian army helicopter from Zenica in central Bosnia to a hill near Jablanica, about 30 miles north of Mostar. The helicopters also transport the wounded from Mostar but the HVO has to first give its permission. The flights are in violation of the United Nations 'no fly' zone over Bosnia, but the UN does little to stop them.

At the hill near Jablanica, soldiers and residents reload the cargo on to horses and mules. It is impossible to use the main road, and the small mountain trails and village roads have become the lifelines to Mostar.

There are nearly 30 horses and mules in circulation, but the animals need to rest after each run. Only six or seven can carry the load of a convoy at any time. This also depends on the cargo; it is easier to put bullet cases on horseback than heavier mortars and grenades.

The horse journey ends north of Mostar, in the village of Bijelo Polje, where supplies are transferred to cars and taken to town under cover of darkness. The front line runs parallel to the road and any vehicles are shot at by Croatians using anti-aircraft guns, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic rifles. Another hazard is land-mines, left behind by all sides; the area has changed hands many times during the war.

Drivers have to know the route by heart; they drive without lights on the bumpy road where turns are sudden and mistakes probably fatal. Croat searchlights scan the road and light up Hum Hill like a carnival. But however dangerous the night run, to undertake it during the day would be suicide.

The Bosnian army supplements the trickle of supplies by producing weapons locally. One of its inventions is 'Little Thunder', a 62mm fragmentation bomb. The casing is manufactured from the steel tubes used for traffic signs, filled with pieces of metal and glass. The explosive comes from a one-

and-a-half-ton HVO mine that was discovered in a sewer under the Bosnian frontline.

Despite the odds, the Bosnian Muslim soldiers captured the important territory around the villages of Dreznica Gornja and Dreznica Donja, north of Mostar. If they can hold it, they will be able to use the main road for supplies, thus avoiding the mule trains. They are also in a position to shell Listica, a Croatian stronghold to the north-east of the city.

There is hope, too, for a deal with the Bosnian Serbs, who, although not active in the current fighting around Mostar, hold important positions in the area. This would almost certainly tilt the balance of fighting in the Muslims' favour.

The army remains determined. 'We fight for what is ours,' says Commander Humo, 'unlike the newcomers, who are invaders. This makes us stronger and capable of winning.'