Gorazde prays for a road to freedom

Witness... Emma Daly reports on the courage of the last Muslim town left in eastern Bosnia
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"Welcome to free Gorazde," the official said - although it's more a state of mind than a fair description of the last government-held enclave in eastern Bosnia - the kind of place to which Sarajevans send food parcels, and where a good time means hanging out by the bridge in the watery autumn sunshine.

For the first time since the war closed in on Gorazde in the spring of 1992, a crack has opened in the Serb armour around the enclave, with the planned opening to civilian traffic of the main road to Sarajevo, 60 miles away.

Over the past few days peace-keepers and aid workers have made cautious forays past glowering Serb check-points; yesterday's convoy included the US ambassador to Bosnia, John Menzies.

Swarms of children tear across the fields at the edge of town, just beyond the last Serb barrier, calling for sweets and giggling at the spectacle. Their elders are less demanding butfriendly, smiling until they weep for the past. Under the ceasefire brokered by the US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, the residents of Gorazde should be free to travel (under UN escort) to Sarajevo. No one we met is ready to risk that journey, but everyone hopes it will improve life in the enclave.

In the small covered market, prices are falling in anticipation of new goods, with traders trying to shift the second-hand boots and jeans, the half-empty bottle of shampoo, the 500g bag of salt that costs 30 German Marks, a third of the price a month ago. "Everything is cheaper because we hope everything will be better with this road," said one lean stall- holder. "We hope there will be peace, so we can go to Sarajevo - for Gorazde that will be at least a half-peace."

Most goods are home-grown: tobacco, apples, onions, leeks, potatoes and honey, from villages in the enclave. They supplement the meagre aiddistributed by the UN despite constant Serb attempts to block convoys. That is why children scamper about in cut-off boots, and why residents have been unable to repair the war damage.

The Serbs banned shelter materials, shoes, clothing and candles from aid convoys. They also cut water, gas, electricity supplies and telephone lines. But everywhere there are signs of the resilience that kept the enclave alive during the worst days. Under the wide modern bridge that spans the river, linking two halves of the city, hangs a plank bridge: pedestrians risk banging their heads on the metal struts of the main structure, but are shielded from snipers in the hills above.

The river below streams through improvised water wheels that generate the only electricity in the city. Each provides enough power to run a radio for a few hours and perhaps a light bulb. City sounds are much reduced; no cars, engines, music, culture, no entertainment, but what the locals provide: The young wander around (now that the cease-fire has rendered the streets safe), read books and have babies.

"We want to be part of the solution and we want to be part of civilisation," Rijad Rascic, the local leader, told Mr Menzies.

For a time it seemed that Gorazde's contribution to the peace plan would be to surrender, following a suggestion that the government trade it to the Serbs for territory elsewhere. But that plan appears to have been squashed - at least according to the people there - and with the opening of the road it would be hard for the government to give it away. "Do you know how many people have given their lives for this town, and how many more are ready to do it?" Mr Rascic asked. "Is it possible? No."

Outside the battered hospital, where shells landed even as doctors struggled to tend the wounded and dying without equipment and medicine, arocket that landed in the grounds has been left as a monument to the city's suffering.

"In the first five or six months of war people died because they had no food. Many people have lost between 20 and 30kg," Dr Husein Praso said. "And there are many psychological problems. It was enough that people had to live underground in the dark, that for four years they have not seen their families. I have a son and wife in Sarajevo, but Sarajevo is now so far, as far away as Australia."

Many of the 57,000 who live in Gorazde are refugees. Most were forced to abandon their homes when the Serbs swept through Foca, Visegrad, Rogatica and Cajnice.

"This is the first cigarette I've had for four years," said Haska Salman, 85, gazing at the cardboard box of goodies sent by her son, who lives in Sarajevo. "Just tell them that I want to come to them," she said, a few tears quickly brushed away. "I had everything before the war, and it's hard, because here I have nothing."