Bosnia races with hunger Desperate Muslims await airdrops

February 28, 1993|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Contributing Writer

BELGRADE -- U.S. food airdrops will have come too late fo 350 children who are said to have died in the last eight weeks in the besieged eastern Bosnian valley community of Zepa.

Most of the children were newborns, according to United Nations officials, and the rest of the population of Zepa, in the area targeted for airdrops, is on the verge of starvation.

Mothers are malnourished, and their babies have a tenuous grip on life.

Last week U.N. aid workers finally reached the farming community, which is set deep in a valley under constant $H bombardment by Serb forces in surrounding mountains.

A French senior official of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, who accompanied the convoy sent from Belgrade, said that he and other U.N. workers only stayed four hours in Zepa and were unable to check the account of the deaths independently.

Bosnian-controlled Sarajevo Radio frequently has broadcast reports portraying a horrific state of affairs in Zepa and other communities besieged by Serb guns. Those reports, including accounts of cannibalism, have been found to be exaggerated.

But the refugee official said he gave special credence to the accounts he heard in Zepa since it was not pressed on him but was provided by two doctors in response to standard questions as the commission attempted to determine what supplies were most needed on possible follow-up convoys.

"There is no reason not to believe the information given the state of the people and their conditions," he said.

The refugee official added that the state of the estimated 35,000 Muslims in Zepa is desperate and gives a good indication of the plight of many people the U.S. planes will try to reach.

People in Zepa are on the verge of starvation after 10 months of siege by the Serbs. Only two U.N. aid convoys -- one last month and one last week -- have been allowed in, both after sustained international pressure.

The refugee official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, described the scene as the trucks slowly wound their way down into the valley as one of the most emotional he has experienced.

"People came out from everywhere. Children and adults. They were thin and looked hungry. They came to the trucks in groups with their hands held out, begging. They were running and clapping, hundreds of them. We had some parcels already ready in the first truck and distributed them. People were so grateful. This welcome was very telling for me."

The people were aware the convoys were coming -- and will know about the U.S. airdrops -- from listening to the radio. With electricity long ago cut off, they recharge batteries at a small generator powered by a single water mill.

The refugee commission estimates that the amount of aid needed to properly feed the community would require weekly convoys of eight or more trucks stuffed with food and medicine.

The U.N. has the aid -- and the trucks -- but has been prevented from taking it in by Serb forces.

Although the aid taken in this week -- and to be airdropped -- cannot meet their needs, the people in Zepa have been buoyed by the attention to their plight.

"It provides a strong psychological boost and that is important for them," the refugee official said.

Despite the severity of the community's plight, he said not one person talked to him about leaving, even those whose houses had been destroyed or damaged by Serbian shelling.

He described one hollow-cheeked grandmother who brought photographs of herself in happier times 10 months ago when she was 30 pounds heavier. She was determined to stay.

He said community leaders and other individuals asked for seeds and bulbs, particularly potatoes, to plant in the next few weeks so that they could feed themselves in the spring. Their other major requests were for sugar, salt and white flour.

The Muslims in Zepa valley live in hamlets spread out in groups of two or three farms. Until the war began, life focused on the community's center, with its mosque, school and hospital.

But now meetings are infrequent and community structures are breaking down.

There are still teachers ready to teach, but parents fear getting the children together for classes, which could be a target for fire from the hills and mountains above. The front of the hospital has already been hit and Muslims have asked for plastic sheeting to cover it up.

"Society has become disorganized, children are on the street all day, and they are worried about that," said the refugee official.

U.N. workers say one reason for the shortness of the visit is that Ukrainian U.N. troops accompanying convoys do not want to stay overnight in any predominantly Muslim communities. They feel safer in Serb-controlled areas: Serbs and Ukrainians are both Slavs. Some Ukrainian mercenaries are in Bosnia fighting on the side of the Serbs.

Other U.N. officials also complained privately that the Ukrainian U.N. troops make money on aid convoys by selling cigarettes to besieged communities at inflated prices.

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