UN lifeline to Bosnia reaches breaking point

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The Independent Online
IN A SCHOOL in Travnik, in what was the capital of Ottoman Bosnia, they are running out of baby food. Last week, they received food from a charity, courtesy of the UN protection force. At the time, they had just four days' supplies left. The new food is enough for eight more days.

The classrooms are full of Muslim refugees - or, rather, 'displaced persons'. Refugees have a status in international law that these people - including 210 children, from the newly born to age 12 - have not attained.

Despite the baby-food crisis, Travnik, a Muslim stronghold close to one of the main United Nations routes into central Bosnia, is relatively well off.

Other villages nearby have seen aid deliveries just once since last November. Supplies in Zenica, a Muslim city with 40,000 refugees, will last two more weeks.

The aid operation - the only aspect of UN policy that has had any success in Bosnia - is faltering, and the shortage of supplies will reach crisis point just as people begin to prepare for the winter. Few people died of starvation in Bosnia last winter, thanks in part to the UN's efforts. But they carried plenty of body fat. They are facing this winter without that vital fat, and UN officials fear that scenes reminiscent of Africa may be seen in Europe.

The changing battle-lines and increasing contempt for the international community shown by the local forces have sharply reduced the amount of aid getting through to warehouses.

The UN's supply routes were drawn up with a two-sided conflict - Serbs versus the Croats and Muslims - in mind. The recent intensification of Muslim- Croat fighting and collusion of Serbs and Croats have thrown those calculations awry.

A gruesome example of what can happen took place in early July, when Croat women stopped a convoy - the 'convoy of salvation' taking supplies to Muslims near Novi Travnik. The Muslim truck drivers were stabbed with pitchforks. Surprisingly, there seems to be no shortage of volunteers to drive the trucks. But there is a problem with 'secondary distribution' of supplies to the people who need them; this is a local, not a UN, responsibility. Last week, local police fired shots over people's heads to stop them pillaging the warehouses.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) admits that up to 80 per cent of the aid does not reach those for whom it was intended. But potentially even more serious, the international organisations responsible for supplies reaching the warehouses - including that of the UNHCR - are running out of support and funds. A ship with 43,000 tons of UNHCR supplies on board was yesterday still at sea in the Adriatic, while the UNHCR negotiated with the port authorities at Split in Croatia. They feel the charges demanded are extortionate, but their parsimony is perhaps a symptom of a looming financial crisis.

The UNHCR's chief in the Muslim town of Zenica, Jorge de la Mota, says there are 400,000 displaced persons in his area, and another 400,000 in Tuzla - totals that make a nonsense of the official figures on UN maps. In the Zenica area, he says, there are perhaps 2 million people living at or below subsistence level, and therefore dependent to some extent on outside aid.

In central Bosnia, the magic figure is 1,208 tonnes per day, which gives each person who needs it 530 grams of food a day. The figures are based on feeding 63 per cent of the population, about 2.2 million people. In the past week, UNHCR convoys have averaged about half that. The figures are issued every day: 575 tonnes on 3 July, then 592, 675, 725, 563 . . .

Last Sunday, the Serbs began to demand tolls from supply convoys at Zvornik. Other convoys were held up on routes that were closed by fighting.

Next day, the British escorted 21 UNHCR trucks from Zenica to a warehouse west of Tuzla, where they had to fire 20 warning shots above the heads of the crowd to persuade them not to steal aid from the trucks.

The trucks returned to Tuzla, but there 100 people quickly assembled and stole about six tonnes of wheat flour. Again, the local police could not cope, and the British army had to assist. On Friday, the police said that they had recovered about half the stolen wheat and that 20 arrests had been made.

Fighting between Muslims and Croats interrupted relief convoys on Wednesday and Thursday, between Kiseljak and Visoko. And on Thursday a UN convoy was delayed in Belgrade, awaiting clearance from the Serbs. Although the armoured escort vehicles can brave gunfire and drive over fields on their tracks, the wheeled and soft-skinned aid trucks in the convoys cannot. The only way to proceed is by negotiation.

Last week, the roads east from Vitez were blocked by obstacles, such as trucks with mines under their wheels or straightforward holes swallowing up the entire road, made with a few kilograms of skilfully placed explosives. Mr de La Mota said the UNHCR and the UN protection force were both 'fed up' with the international community's attitude to the Bosnia crisis. 'With the mandate that we have, we cannot do our work,' he said.

And with the softly-softly attitude of the UN forces here in the face of increased local contempt, and, for want of a better phrase, mickey-taking, he said, the international aid organisations would become hostages of the local warlords.

(Photograph and map omitted)