‘WELCOME TO HELL’
IN SARAJEVO, SOME DEPRIVED CITIZENS REGARD THE UN RELIEF EFFORT AS A CRUEL DECEPTION
Sarajevo remained a city under siege last week, even as a United Nations relief effort for
300.000 civilians trapped in the Bosnian capital gathered momentum. In Munich, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and other leaders of the Group of Seven industrialized countries warned all belligerents in a statement that if they endanger relief workers, including 800 Canadian peacekeepers in Sarajevo, “the United Nations will have to consider other measures, not excluding military means, to achieve its humanitarian objectives. ” As if to underscore the urgency of their words, a Canadian peacekeeper, Cpl. Dennis Reid of Green ’s Harbour, Nfld., lost a foot when he stepped on a land mine in Sarajevo.
Later, in Helsinki, 51 delegates to the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE) blamed Serbia for the year-old civil war in the former Yugoslav federation that has left
14.000 people dead. And foreign ministers of the nine-nation Western European Union defence, alliance agreed to send a naval flotilla with air support to patrol the waters off the Yugoslav coast. NATO said that it would also provide support. As the prospect of European military intervention to open a land corridor to the besieged city increased, Maclean’s European Bureau Chief Andrew Phillips talked with residents of Sarajevo about the effectiveness of the relief effort. His report:
She was just another scared woman in a terrified town, scuttling along the sidewalk with a shopping bag clutched in one hand. Azra Rikovic, a 44-yearold lawyer, had been walking the streets of Sarajevo all day, trying desperately to find something for her family to eat. Like almost everyone in the city, Rikovic had a terrible, heart-wrenching story to tell: her 63-year-old father, Mehmed, had been injured in the fighting and developed gangrene in his right leg. His toes were starting to fall off, but she had nothing but a little bread to give him. With United Nations convoys ferrying tons of food aid into the city, Rikovic figured, there must be something for someone as desperate as her. But an exhausting day spent knocking at the doors of charity agencies, churches and neighborhood councils produced nothing but words. “Everyone I ask for help tells me to go here or there,” Rikovic said, giving way to fear and fatigue with a flood of tears. And then she was gone—disappearing around the comer, back to her hungry family and her dying father.
For some of Sarajevo’s 300,000 people, the
UN relief operation did bring new hope after three months of bitter ethnic fighting. The Muslim neighborhood of Butmir, which had been surrounded by Serbian forces for 10 weeks, finally received its first aid from the outside world when Canadian peacekeepers in armored personnel carriers escorted a convoy of UN trucks carrying food parcels. The soldiers were greeted as heroes, showered with flowers and toasted with fruit juice. But for Azra Rikovic and tens of thousands more, the United Nation’s much publicized operation was little more than a cruel deception. For them, there was no help—only a renewal of the shooting and shelling that has turned their once beautiful city into a killing ground.
The heavy fighting that broke out at midweek threatened even the fragile lifeline established by the UN protection force. By then, an average of 15 planes a day were touching down at Sarajevo’s airport, carrying everything from powdered milk to French army combat rations, fresh bandages and drugs. Pilots from Canada, Russia and a dozen other countries braved the most dangerous airspace in the world, dipping down among the hostile hills that surround the city to bring in 250 tons of aid each day. Canadian and French soldiers pitched in to unload the planes and ensure that the aid arrived safely at five warehouses around Sarajevo. In principle, the relief effort was enough to put a food parcel into the hands of 15,000 families a day. The sad reality was that inefficiency and outright corruption meant that many of the neediest families went without, while relief supplies quickly turned up on Sarajevo’s black market.
In one blatant case last week, witnessed by Maclean ’s, boxes of UN food aid designated for distressed families were being handed out directly to Muslim fighters. After UN convoys took the food to central warehouses, officials of
the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) distributed it through a network of private charity groups around the city. At the offices of one group, an Islamic charity called Merhamet, desperate people were vainly lining up, only to be told that packages would be given out in their local neighborhoods. A young official, Nedim Sahovic, directed inquiring reporters to an aid centre in the Kosevo Hill district of the city where, he said, needy families would receive help later that day. Up the hill, the local centre’s president, Munib Gadzo, explained that he had only 340 parcels for 13,000 families. Each box contained food for a month: cooking oil, canned mackerel, corned beef, sugar, feta cheese and concentrated milk. “This is our first shipment,” Gadzo said, “and
we are giving it to the people most in need: the refugees and the poor.”
Gadzo said that he had a list of the neediest families, who would receive food that day. But the list had been misplaced and the distribution would be delayed. It was scheduled for 4 p.m. A half-hour after that, about 60 young soldiers from the Bosnian Territorial Defence Force, some carrying weapons, filed up to the aid centre. One by one, Gadzo called out their names and they walked out with the prized food parcels. Some happily posed for photographs
with boxes of UN aid on their shoulders and AK47 assault rifles slung across their backs. Gadzo was unapologetic. “The ones who are most in need are the members of the territorial army,” he said. “They are mostly working people who are in the front lines. So we are trying to supply the fighters and their families.” Finally, he flashed his own territorial army identity card.
UN officials were angered but not surprised at the abuse. If Serbian forces learned that Bosnian troops were being supplied with aid parcels, they could accuse the United Nations of taking sides and bring the entire relief operation to a halt. “Our function here isn’t to distribute food to soldiers,” said a frustrated Rick Garlock, the
45-year-old American who is the UNHCR’s chief of operations in Sarajevo. “We aren’t trying to make them better fighters and prolong the conflict.” Garlock had his own list of abuses and errors: packages of prized feta cheese were being taken out of UN boxes and sold on the black market and one Muslim community had been given American army combat rations, which contain large quantities of pork.
Journalists staying at the Holiday Inn hotel, a battered structure frequently targeted by Serbian mortars and snipers, found more evidence
of abuse on their own dining tables. Soon after the first shipments of UN aid arrived in the city, the reporters were served mackerel and feta cheese—the two most sought-after items in the food boxes. It was washed down with bottles of Volvic mineral water, the same brand flown in earlier by a French relief plane.
Some food, at least, was getting to the right people. Outside the Holy Trinity Church in New Sarajevo, a neighborhood of modem apartment buildings that have escaped serious damage, several hundred housewives and pensioners milled about one morning last week, even after all 300 food parcels had been distributed. “I can’t give you something I don’t have,” a harassed aid worker shouted in a vain bid to
make the crowd disperse, a priority in an area where any gathering of people becomes an easy target for sniper fire.
Inside, an exhausted-looking parish priest, Tomislav Josic, described how people started lining up outside at 5 a.m., even though he had announced that food would not be handed out for another four hours. He confessed that many parishioners are convinced that the church is hoarding food. “They think we’re just keeping it here,” he said sadly. “For me, this is one of the worst things.” A pale young nun, Sister Livija, locked the doors against the crowd outside. “I feel terrible,” she said. “I don’t know how to explain to people that we don’t have anything to give them.”
Even without UN aid, most people in the beseiged city are not threatened with starvation. Only in a few neighborhoods—Dobrinja, for one, where about 20,000 people huddle in houses surrounded by Serbian soldiers—do people face acute hunger. For them, the irony is blatant: Dobrinja ends only 100 m from Sarajevo’s airport and, from their windows, its isolated people can see tons of food being loaded into UN trucks. None of it can reach them through the Serbian blockade.
Most of the city’s people, though, are surviving on a monotonous diet of bread, rice, macaroni and beans. Coffee is still widely available and the local brewery still pumps out a flat beer that people cart away in plastic jugs. At Sarajevo’s main outdoor market on Marshal Tito Boulevard one morning last week, only a dozen of the 200 wooden stalls were operating, and their supplies were pathetically inadequate. A few sold candy bars and instant pudding powder. Others offered dandelion leaves, which can be turned into a salad or boiled to make a thin broth, which at least supplies some vitamin C.
But the prize last week was a supply of palered cherries from a tree in someone’s backyard. Gordana Dubreta, a 41-year-old economist, snapped up a kilogram of cherries for her husband, Miroslav, and their two children. Still elegantly dressed after three months with intermittent water and electricity, Dubreta gestured at the near-empty market and sighed. “It was so nice here, always crowded and full of life,” she said. “At this time of year, it should be overflowing with fresh fruits and vegetables from Dalmatia. Now, we’re eating weeds.” The UN aid, said Dubreta, would make little difference to her family. “We’re considered well-off,” she said. “Our house wasn’t badly damaged and we’ve got some money, so we’ll be at the bottom of the list for help.”
At the top of the list are people like Fatah Karij, a 42-year-old Muslim woman who looks closer to 60. She and 10 other people fled their homes six weeks ago when their apartments were destroyed by grenades. Last week, they were eking out a miserable existence in the underground parking garage of an apartment building within a couple of hundred metres of the Serbian-Muslim front line in the heart of Sarajevo. Like thousands of other people who are now refugees in their own city, they moved into whatever they could find: in their case, two parking spaces in the dimly lit basement, which
at least offers protection from the random shooting that terrorizes people above ground. There, Karij’s grandson, five-year-old Jasko, lay under a brown blanket, shrinking away in terror from visitors. They, at least, did get some UN help last week: a box of food identical to the ones being carted off by the Bosnian soldiers.
Above ground, Sarajevo’s people attempt to carry on something resembling normal life, although when they ask one another what it is like outside, they are wondering about the intensity of the shooting, not the state of the weather. City buses still run, even though they are targets of sniper fire. Passengers wait in the shelter of buildings, then dash across the sidewalk to jump onboard. That did not help four people on Friday morning, who died when a bus was hit by rifle fire and a grenade.
Along Marshal Tito Boulevard, Sarajevo’s main street, cars lie abandoned—some riddled with bullet holes, some burned out and others casualties of high-speed collisions that are inevitable when drivers speed through the city to minimize their exposure to attack. Pedestrians hurry quickly across such open areas as the picturesque arched bridges that cross the narrow Miljacka River. One small bridge is dedicated to Gavrilo Princip, the young man who, on June 28, 1914, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary and sparked the First World War. At the north end of the bridge is a paving stone containing imprints of Princip’s footsteps in the position that he stood to fhre the fatal shots. But even that monument has become a casualty of war; the paving stone lies smashed in pieces.
Those who are wounded in the fighting are taken to such refuges as Kosevo hospital, in the city’s hilly north end, where even a quiet day sees a steady stream of civilian casualties with bullet and shrapnel wounds. The less fortunate end up 200 m down the road in Lion Cemetery. Once used as a burial ground for partisans, the antifascist resistance fighters of the Second World War, the cemetery had not allowed any new burials for 25 years. But Serbian forces control so many of Sarajevo’s newer graveyards that Lion Cemetery was reopened in April to accommodate the dead. Hundreds of fresh graves scar the ground, with the dead divided by religious background. Temporary crosses mark the graves of Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs; rough wooden boards with pointed tops indicate Muslim graves; and boards adorned with red stars mark where declared atheists are buried. All, though, are the same in one respect: the date of their death reads 1992.
In the cemetery one afternoon last week, 23year-old Danis Tanovic hunched over a video camera filming the rows of new graves. Tanovic, who is studying film directing, was making a documentary, which he intends to call Cultural Genocide, to record the fate of his city. Like many other local people, he seemed stunned by what has happened to Sarajevo, unable to comprehend how centuries of uneasy yet peaceful coexistence among different ethnic groups dissolved within weeks into merciless slaughter. “It’s like a bad dream,” he said. “I can’t believe how people you used to go around with, chase girls with, are out there somewhere shooting at your family, shooting at your sister.”
Serbian leaders say that they want to partition the city and keep control of mainly Serbian areas. But Tanovic noted that Sarajevo’s population is so intermingled that such a plan would be impossible. Serbs, Croats and Muslims live on the same streets, in the same buildings, and intermarry. “Are they going to segregate ev-
ery building?” asked Tanovic. “This is a Serb building, this is Muslim, this is a Croatian coffee shop? It’s madness.”
Tanovic spoke with simple eloquence of the terrible consequences of the war, of how the trust among different groups has been shattered forever. He seemed like a voice of moderation and reason, except for one disturbing sign. In a leather pouch on his belt he kept a hand grenade, its detonating pin carefully taped shut. “Believe me,” he said, “if they catch me I will explode this. I’ll kill myself and take a few of them with me. I think I’ll go there [he pointed upwards, towards heaven] if I do that.” Like many Sarajevans, Tanovic was contemptuously dismissive of the UN relief effort. “Sure it helps, but mineral water and sandwiches are not what we need,” he said. “We need weapons to defend ourselves.”
That is also the message from the Presidency, the squat, dark, stone building in the city centre that is the headquarters of Bosnia’s beleaguered government. Its president, Alija Izetbegovic, went to the CSCE meeting in Helsinki last week to appeal for Western military intervention. But U.S. President George Bush rebuffed his request for air strikes against Serbian artillery positions in the hills around Sarajevo.
In the Presidency building itself, government adviser Hajrudin Somun outlined the Bosnians’ precarious military position while the occasional mortar round exploded outside. The Serbs, who took over many heavy weapons from the Yugoslav army when it withdrew from Bosnia, have 95 tanks around Sarajevo, said Somun, while the city’s defenders have
just one. “Against such a large force, who knows how long they can fight?” he warned. Despite the bitter legacy of the past three months of fighting, Somun and Bosnia’s government still cling to the notion of a united city with all groups coexisting under one government, an increasingly unrealistic goal.
In fact, the government’s authority is already crumbling, even in the areas it controls, with real power passing to independent warlords and their private militias. The government’s flimsy hope of future harmony is underlined by a visit to the headquarters of one of the city’s new heroes: a Muslim gangster turned defender known as Juka. Before the war, Juka (in reality a 28-year-old gang leader named Jusuf Prazina) ran a private-detective agency that was a cover for his real business of collecting debts, by force if necessary. But when fighting broke out in March, he recruited young men to the reserve special police force, now an official part of the Bosnian army. He commands about 5,000 men who operate alongside, but independently of, Bosnia’s army.
Its eager young members, dressed like refugees from a Mad Max movie, pin up posters of their handsome leader and wear lapel buttons stamped with his picture. They call themselves “Juka’s Wolves,” after a song playing on local radio, and favor shaven heads, earrings and buttons of the rock group KISS on their motley uniforms. Their hero travels around handing out candy and toys to children and runs a soup kitchen in the Alipasino Hill area of the city, a neighborhood of highrise apartment buildings vulnerable to Serbian attack.
Juka’s brother, Mustafa Prazina, 33, is outfitted entirely in black, complete with black leather gloves with the fingers cut off. He hobbles on crutches, the legacy of a machine-gun attack two months ago that shattered his right leg. In his local headquarters last week, once a children’s library and now an armory lined with racks of automatic weapons, Mustafa Prazina dismissed the regular Bosnian soldiers as ineffectual. It is Juka’s commandos, he said, who do the toughest frontline fighting. “I only see the army people sitting around in café bars,” he said.
Juka’s Wolves vow that they will not put down their weapons even after the war ends, but will remain an independent fighting force. The prospect for Sarajevo and all of Bosnia could hardly be bleaker. The feuding forces show no signs of wanting to talk, let alone compromise. Local people talk despairingly of years, possibly decades, of sporadic fighting, a permanent state of semi-war that would turn Sarajevo into a Balkan Beirut. It is a prospect neatly captured by a slogan daubed on a wall alongside the wide boulevard that bisects Sarajevo’s new section, past which the UN aid convoys rumbled all last week. It reads: “Welcome to hell.” □