Mostar: A Glimpse Of Hell Frozen Over

THERE ARE TWO strategies for staying alive if you're a Muslim in Mostar. Hunker down in the basement all day and come out for food and water at night, when the Croatian shelling starts. Or stay in the basement all night and come out during the day, when the Croatian snipers go to work. In a community of 55,000 with an average daily toll of two dead and 10 wounded, that's not much of a choice. Besieging troops of the Croatian Defense Council (HVO), together with Serb forces, have had the Muslims surrounded since early May. More shells are hitting Muslim-held Mostar these days than Sarajevo, which is six times as populous. Bloody water flows in the gutter of the main street as bodies are washed for burial. Hardly a moment goes by without the sound of gunfire or explosions, and international aid workers visit only in armored cars. As a result, relief aid gets in only sporadically. Some people starve because they simply can't survive the dash to the food-distribution points, a pet target of Croatian gunners.

Mostar provides a chilling glimpse of the winter to come in Bosnia, where 2.7 million residents depend entirely on United Nations relief aid. By almost any measure, it'll be harder than last winter. Then there were trees in towns; now people are digging up the roots. Then there was commercial traffic up from the coast; now that's cut off because of fighting between Muslims and Croats. Serbs and Croats have been holding up truck convoys of humanitarian aid since October, evidently hoping to let winter finish the job they started on their Muslim enemies. And while last year's winter was mild, this one has begun early, and ferociously.

No fuel has reached east Mostar since the siege began, and 11 people froze to death after the first snows came Nov. 21. Refugees huddling in a lobby of the half-destroyed National Theater have been burning period furniture from sets and soon will start chopping up a grand piano that still turns out a good tune. At Mostar Hospital, director Zlatko Skikic is bitter as he talks about the six malnutrition deaths they have recorded so far. "It's sad when people come to donate blood and we have to reject them because their blood is in such bad condition [as a result of poor diet]," says Dr. Skikic. "The most nourishing meal anyone ever gets in Mostar is a blood transfusion."

The lucky ones live in basements, like the 13 families--30 people including 12 children--who share one room 50 feet underground in a building near the radio station, a favorite target of the Croats. Many of these Muslim families were expelled by the Croats from their homes. Every night, relief workers say, dozens more are forced across the dangerous no man's land by HVO ethnic-cleansing teams. "I had to crawl with my [15-year-old] son on my belly in the rain," said Pasana Fejzic, "and then the HVO started shooting at us, too." When she got up to run, she says, she passed the scattered bodies of Muslims who hadn't made it. Now she shares a single toilet with the other 30 residents, and 70 from the basement next door.

In central Bosnia refugees have actually begun fleeing into Sarajevo, which at least gets regular humanitarian airlifts from the United Nations. One recent night Devic Fahrudin, 18, and his family left the central Bosnian town of Breza 50 miles from Mostar and gambled their lives to cross front lines into the capital. Under Serb sniper fire Devic, his mother and brother raced across the Sarajevo airport runway, carrying all their warm clothing in bundles. At the other side the family found cold bunks in a much-shelled school; Devic's brother was promptly drafted. Even so, the family is glad they came. "We still had trees in Breza," Devic said, "but I'd rather have three meals a day. You don't feel as cold on a full stomach."

U.S. airdrops into central Bosnia provide practically no relief. On Nov. 21 nine people were maimed crossing a minefield to reach aid packages that fell on the wrong side of the front line. And last week Mostar was one of the areas that received packages of stuffed teddy bears as Christmas presents to Bosnian children from U.S. Air Force wives in Germany. "We need food, not toys," said a local official. "We do not even celebrate Christmas." These days, Mostar doesn't celebrate anything at all.

PHOTO: A chilling vision of the winter to come: Taking cover in Mostar (LUC DELAHAYE--SIPA)

Subject Terms: MOSTAR (Bosnia & Hercegovina) -- Social conditions

Copyright 1993 Newsweek: not for distribution outside of Newsweek Inc.