Sarajevo's vital lifeline is a trucker's nightmare Hairpin turns, tall mountains confront U.N. relief convoys

August 28, 1992|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Staff Writer

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The United Nations food convoy inches toward this city from Split on the Adriatic coast along a tortuous mountain route that is often more trail than road and never seems to run even 100 yards in a straight line.

At the United Nations in New York, at a peace conference in London and at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and in many capitals of the world, this is the route they are discussing as one of the land corridors that should be kept open for humanitarian aid to besieged Bosnia.

On the ground the route is often only a dirt trail in the process of being enlarged from a country lane, clinging dubiously to the mountain sides, curling back on itself in dozens of switchbacks that look like ideal spots for ambushes.

In many, many places, the "road" is barely wide enough for the big Volvo Diesel trucks in this convoy to pass single file. The trucks grind up mountains 2,000 and 3,000, even 4,000, feet high. Rock outcroppings rise from the thin soil like gravestones for some forgotten race.

One or two well-placed mortar rounds are enough to close the route and leave the people in Sarajevo waiting another week for food. That's what horrifies people who think of sending troops here to help.

The potential danger is easy to overlook as the convoy moves along. The countryside along the way has a lovely pastoral quality, a Christmas garden look in the valleys below the hillside road.

Cows munch through the roadside weeds and every now and then step out into the road. The convoy passes horse-drawn hay wagons, women hanging out their wash, barefoot children waving and shouting.

It is deceptively peaceful.

The convoy leaves the dock at Split promptly at 8:15 a.m. for what is about a 12-hour trip, broken by an overnight stay at a place called Vitez, about 30 miles out of Sarajevo. An armed escort in an armored personnel carrier leads the convoy into the broken city from there.

The trucks are driven by volunteers from Sweden, firefighters who drive fire engines back home.

It is the second such trip for Hakan Ostlund, a balding instructor from a fire rescue school in Sweden. His cargo is beans, fish, two truckloads of U.S. Army Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) and detergent.

"Six tons of detergent," he says. "Six tons last week. Twelve tons in a week.

"I can't think detergent can be so important," Mr. Ostlund says. "For the hospital, OK, but I think food is more important."

The food situation in Sarajevo is precarious. The city has a two-month supply. Most Sarajevans get what is called a week's supply of food. It lasts about three days. And people here are sick of the MREs.

Five trucks make this trip, with four cars of journalists in tow. One pair of Austrians is delivering their television crew an armor-plated Opel Senator with bulletproof glass and special tires that don't blow when they're hit by a bullet.

Mr. Ostlund says a convoy usually consists of 10 trucks, but the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that runs these convoys wants to keep a presence on this route. So they're running five trucks in two-day sequences.

At the bottom of a ravine near a dot on the map called Gornji Vakut the route has been reduced to a trial being hacked out of wood and rock. The Swedes have to thread through fallen timber and fallen boulders. Finally the convoy had to back up to allow the traffic ahead to come through.

A man in a turban wearing camouflage fatigues, a knife, an automatic and a Bosnian army badge comes down the road. He's worked in India, which is where he acquired the turban. He says he was born in Bosnia. He's come home to help.

"I have to kill people who kill women and children," he says. "But I don't like killing."

The convoy reaches Vitez at dusk. The drivers fill up the hotel and the reporters drive 20 miles further on to the town of Kiseljak.

The convoy moves leg into Sarajevo the next morning. The trip is uneventful except for passage through a half-dozen checkpoints.

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