Bosnia: The Tragic Prospect

Large and seemingly unlikely political changes will have to take place before November in order to avoid a momentous catastrophe in the Balkans. The primary threat to the region is posed by the prospect that war in Bosnia-Herzegovina will continue into the winter, cutting off many thousands from humanitarian aid, and leaving them to die from cold, starvation, and illness. This threat, moreover, is compounded by a number of secondary conflicts and problems which must receive urgent attention in order to prevent regional conflict from breaking out of its bloody Bosnian prison and causing havoc first in Croatia and then in what is left of Yugoslavia—i.e., in Serbia and Montenegro.

The rejection of the Owen-Stoltenberg peace plan by the Bosnian parliament on September 29 appeared to bury the possibility that an unjust but necessary peace settlement would be made. Only by accepting the plan could the Bosnians have set in motion the huge aid program needed during the coming winter to sustain the civilian population of all three communities, but the urban Muslims above all.

At the beginning of October, President Izetbegovic was expected to address the United Nations General Assembly, giving rise to faint hopes that a compromise may yet be reached; but most observers remained skeptical. When confronted with the prospect of winter, Izetbegovic said that “it will be very difficult but I think we will be able to survive it.” Not all ministers in his government agree. In Sarajevo I was told by Hussein Ahmovic, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s minister of food distribution, that “unless we get massive humanitarian help this winter, Bosnia is set to suffer a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.” Mr. Ahmovic explained that although last winter was unexpectedly mild, most trees in districts under government control were cut down to provide heat. Housing has been depleted by some 70 percent while the people of Sarajevo have already burnt most of their books to keep warm. Food stocks are only 10 percent of those available at this time last year. Doctors in Sarajevo have recently reported an outbreak of a hepatitis epidemic with over four hundred cases recorded in the city. The local authorities have appealed for the airlift of one hundred tons of rat poison, because the cities of Sarajevo, Zenica, and Tuzla are now infested by vermin. Perhaps most telling of all, according to Mr. Ahmovic, the average loss of weight of citizens throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina since the beginning of the war in April 1992 has been twenty kilograms—forty-four pounds.

Sarajevo’s plight, however, is modest compared with the desperate conditions elsewhere in the republic. Each day 35,000 Muslims seek protection from hundreds of Croat shells which land in the eastern part of Mostar. These people are living in “a sub-stone age society,” as one aid worker described it; and their compatriots who are surrounded by Serb forces in the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Srebenica, Zepa, and Gorazde are little better off. The United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees in Sarajevo has …

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