BELGRADE -- Winter, the cruelest enemy of all, is about to devastate the Balkans.
It will claim more lives than all the guns have taken since Yugoslavia began to disintegrate last year: tens of thousands of frozen corpses, people dead from pneumonia, frostbite and starvation. It will produce scenes evoking the Middle Ages, not 20th century Europe. Yet the outside world has failed to anticipate this impending new horror or do enough to avert it, aid officials say.
Hit hardest will be Bosnia-Herzegovina, where estimates of possible deaths range from the CIA's 140,000 to the United Nations' 400,000. The fighting has devastated a once-rich land: Most people are now without electricity, water, window panes or food. Cornfields that could have provided food are rotting. Factories are destroyed or idle. Temperatures in this mountainous region will dip to minus 10 or lower for weeks.
A thin lifeline is provided by the U.N. relief operation. But U.N. officials say it is far too little.
"The outside world is hiding behind us, easing its conscience," said one senior official at the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). "It can say aid planes are going to Sarajevo, road convoys are going in, so we are doing just fine. Yes, it is a big help. But no, it is not just fine."
The United Nations is getting about 500 tons of food into Bosnia a week. "On the assumption that 3 million people are now left in Bosnia and 1.4 million have left," the official said, "that amounts .. to less than one kilo [2.2 pounds] per person per week -- not even subsistence."
Countless people are out of reach in isolated villages, on mountainsides and in besieged towns. "We have no idea what they have to save themselves this winter," she said.
Requests for international trucks and drivers went unanswered for months. "With them, we could have done a great deal to prepare for the winter. Yet we could not send Serb drivers into Croatia or Croatian drivers into Serb-held Bosnia," she said.
One U.N. commander expressed frustration his soldiers have no mandate to use force to open up routes -- echoing the beliefs of many out side observers who say the United Nations should have gone in earlier and with more force to avert much of the bloodshed. U.N. troops are now to begin protecting road convoys, but can only fire in self defense.
"We are nothing more than Boy Scouts -- and what good are Boy Scouts in this blood bath?" the commander asked.
Close to 3 million refugees have now fled Bosnia's and Croatia's fighting -- almost one in six of the world's refugees. Around 500,000 have found refuge outside the former Yugoslavia. They are the luckiest.
The others, traumatized and homeless, are dependent on handouts from U.N. and local aid agencies, mostly in Croatia and Serbia.
In Croatia, facilities are overwhelmed: It has closed its borders to any new influx. Many refugees are crammed into tiny spaces with little idea how many weeks, months or years they will remain.
"It's hard for us to comprehend -- and we haven't -- that here are people just like us. They had two-story homes and cars in the garage and VCRs and sent their kids to summer camp. And now they are walking across the border with a small plastic bag of belongings and saying: 'Please help me,' " said an aid worker.
"That hasn't sunk home. We are used to seeing Third World refugees who go from nothing to nothing, and we shrug. We haven't realized that here is a new category of refugee. For where they are coming from, their plight is even more traumatic."
In Croatia, the UNHCR and other aid agencies are likely to be able to provide a meager subsistence. That's unlike Serbia, which is being strangled by U.N. sanctions.
In a cruel twist, it is the Serb armies -- which the United Nations wanted to punish -- which will suffer least this winter. They are being provided with the oil and food they need at the expense of civilians -- particularly refugees.
Ordinary people are bracing for a winter with little heating oil and almost no gasoline for transportation. Few have jobs: Enterprises are closing because of lack of raw materials, energy and markets. Rationing has been introduced. Those with relatives in the countryside are hauling what vegetables they can to pickle for the winter.
"Am I to blame?"
In the hospitals, the situation is desperate. As one patient writhed in agony, his doctor told of how he was dying because his severe ulcers could not be treated -- they needed imported medicines. In the infants' wards even the most basic medicines and necessities are lacking -- including diapers.
Those suffering most in Serbia are the refugees from the other republics. There are some Muslims and Croats, but most are Serbs. Some 95 per cent have been housed by host families. But the extra mouths to feed and bodies to warm are placing a heavy burden on the hosts. Many refugees are now being evicted to the new refugee centers where facilities are basic at best.
Their plight there already is desperate. Refugee centers are in such places as vacation camps where walls are of plywood and -- even were heating oil is available -- there are no heating systems.
The UNHCR is expecting a new wave of refugees into Serbia -- anyone who can escape the fighting and winter. They believe 150,000 refugees could flood in, and that there will be nowhere to put them. Outside countries and organizations are helping Croatia build refugee facilities -- but refuse to do the same in Serbia because of its role in starting the war.
Many Serbian refugees feel they are being doubly punished because they are Serbs. At a pitifully stocked depot in central Belgrade where refugees can receive one outfit, a woman sat depressed on the steps.
"I had a three-story home in Lipik [Croatia]," she said. "I'd be happy to have one room now. Everyone blames the Serbs, and I know we are guilty. But my house was burned by the Croats, and I am here cold and miserable. I live in a dormitory with my three sons. Where am I to go? What am I to do? Am I to blame?"