Sarajevo strangling in wintry war


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- On that Monday, Narcisa Kevcija swung her ax for the last time.

The last wooden guardrail was gone from the small footbridge over Sarajevo's Miljacka River, and Ms. Kevcija, a 21-year-old veteran of the Bosnian War and the widowed mother of TC 3-month-old girl, would have to look elsewhere for wood to heat the three small, damp rooms of her Sarajevo apartment.

There's no electricity in her apartment because someone stole the cooling oil from the neighborhood's transformer, and despite a line of narrow ditches up and down her street, gas lines have yet to be installed.

From her attic window she has a panoramic view of the minarets and steeples of old Sarajevo and of front-line Serbian sniper positions a few hundred yards away, but the view hardly makes up for the bitter cold.

Showing a visitor into the unheated apartment, Ms. Kevcija points to a half-built closet. "I burned the top shelves and the door, and yesterday I burned the door to the bedroom. I learned quickly that that wasn't a very smart idea," she says, shivering in the draft.

With snows already blanketing most of Bosnia, some 300,000 Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Sarajevo, and another 2.4 million people across the country, most of them Muslims, will face their harshest winter yet, after 20 months of war.

United Nations aid convoys that bring most of the food to the region were cut off for most of November after a U.N. aid driver was killed by a Bosnian government soldier's bullet.

Snow, ice and fog in the mountainous region already make aid deliveries difficult, and Bosnian Serb and occasionally Bosnian Croat commanders play a cruel game of cat-and-mouse with aid deliveries, alternately letting food and winter clothing through, then blocking convoys with bureaucratic delays or pounding Muslim-populated towns with artillery, rockets and mortars.

The fighting is unlikely to end soon. Snow will define the front lines, but the Muslim-led Bosnian government is finally fighting back. New, dynamic commanders have the Muslims on a roll, repelling Serbian and Croatian offensives. And with tens of thousands of dead on all sides, no one with a gun is in a mood for compromise.

Instead, the war is certain to drag on for months, and with it, the suffering of cold, hungry and ill civilians.

The United Nations says it needs to bring 50,000 tons of food a month into the region, but in a recent two-week period, it moved less than 10,000 tons.

"Obviously, the figures don't add up," says U.N. relief official Ray Wilkinson. He says that the United Nations will never be able to make up for the food supplies lost when deliveries were stopped in November and that the situation will continue to get worse.

"People have exhausted their reserves of food, of body fat, of morale and of hard currency, which got them through the first winter of war," says Mr. Wilkinson.

In Sarajevo, where an air bridge of about 20 flights a day is all that keeps the city alive, residents get by on tiny relief packages, often eating less than a half a pound of food -- mostly bread and rice -- each day. There's little else left to supplement their diets with.

Selling soap and shampoo at a local market, each month Ms. Kevcija makes 50 German marks, the only valid currency here. In New York that would be worth almost $30. In Sarajevo, it buys a quart of cooking oil.

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