UN: More harm than good?: Save a life? They've all done it; the soldiers' view

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'I CAN'T stop you going down there, sir, but I wouldn't advise it. They're all mad round here.' It was the most reassuring sight in the world. A Scimitar light tank at the top of the five-mile bandit canyon down to Gornji Vakuf. The notorious Fishhead Gang murdered three Italians here a while ago. There is no law and order, apart from the UN and the patchy control of local commanders. Alone, they were easy meat.

The aid truck I was with was entitled to an escort, and the lance-corporal called on his radio. 'Be about half an hour,' he said. I never asked his name, but he was from Leeds. Now he has a small daughter and a house in Wakefield. 'Better for bringing up children,' he said. In the past three years he's been away too much. Six months in the Gulf, six in Northern Ireland, now Bosnia. 'But these people,' he said, 'they've got nothing.'

The better-off have no electricity, no running water, and profiteer on the black market. The less fortunate have been forced from their burnt homes with what they can carry in plastic bags.

Don't tell these men they are not doing a worthwhile job, or that the UN is about to pull out of Bosnia. It would be humiliation for the UN and, by association, for the British Army and these young men as individuals.

The UN forces are ostensibly here to escort aid to depots from where it can be distributed to those in need. That operation has been a success. There have been problems recently: the aid organisations have run out of money and there are shifts in the 'ethnic grain' which originally determined the aid routes.

But last winter few people died of starvation. The aid got through. And it continues to get through. This winter will be worse, so the Royal Engineers are creating a new road up through the mountains, widening, straightening the tortuous track so it will take two heavy trucks.

But escorting aid implies a lot more than riding shotgun and improving a route. The British philosophy is to create windows through which aid can pass - corridors of comparative calm. That has saved countless lives. The locals do not mess with these white armoured vehicles very often. After the Ahmici massacre, two Warriors encountered 150 people being marched down a road to a fate that looked, in the words of the previous battalion's commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Stewart, 'pretty terminal'. They had no interpreter, but they forced the Croat guards to turn the column round. As Lt-Col Stewart said, a soldier only has to save one life, to rescue one starving child, to make his six months, 'and they've all done it'.

It is easy to say the UN should take a more aggressive stance, force its way through the roadblocks. Such action would mean open warfare with one of the warring factions and probably, in a short time, with all three. That would mean open season on the aid trucks and their unarmed crews.

In the cookhouse in Vitez, you will find the conviction that the only course is to keep going, to feed the people and to get those routes working properly. The soldiers believe they can do it - unless someone tells them to stop.

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