October 18, 1993 Vreme News Digest Agency No 108
Mostar: Life In A Trap
by Vanessa Vasic-Janekovic
The soldiers do not believe in negotiations, although they want the war to end as soon as possible. ``We are fighting for a Mostar where we will all live together, Moslems, Serbs, Croats--but only with those who haven't committed any atrocities. There are Serbs and Croats in our Army, they fought with us at first against the Chetniks, and now they are fighting against the Ustashis''
There is an enormous amount of hashish on the left bank (B-H), but no cigarettes. On the other hand, the HVO have everything. The men on this side came up with the idea of filling up an empty shell with hashish and firing it across. The other side sent it back (empty) but they tied cigarettes around it with cellotape and rope. This is done regularly.
The former office of a Belgrade-based daily, on the ground floor of a wrecked building, only fifty meters from the Bosnian Army front line with the Croats, is now the flat of Nusreta Becic. It is also a gathering place for those still living in Cernica, a quarter on the right bank of the Neretva River. Nusreta is a geologist, working in a small first aid center nearby, and is lucky enough to have a stove so that most of the remaining inhabitants of the half-burnt building bake their bread and cook their meals there. Nusreta's boyfriend is a soldier, living on the front line. His former teacher Mila is one of the neighbors who spend their time with Nusreta, drinking coffee made of roast wheat. Mila lives in the basement, her flat was destroyed.
East Mostar is a place with a shortage of living space. Half-destroyed after five months of shelling it can offer very little, even to its own inhabitants. It is an undesirable place to be in, dependent on humanitarian help that rarely comes, squeezed in between the HVO and Serbian lines. East Mostar is a trap. Yet, it is the only refuge for those (mainly, but not only Moslems) expelled from both Eastern and Western Herzegovina and from West Mostar.
Expulsions from West Mostar occur daily, usually at dusk. The elderly, women and children are driven out of their flats and houses and pushed across the front line that divides the town in two. On September 29, around five hundred people were expelled in one go. HVO and regular Croat Army members burst into their flats at around eight o'clock, interrupting dinner. The soldiers did not forget to search for gold and Deutsche Marks, searching very thoroughly, even undressing their victims. Many were not allowed to take a bag with the most necessary things, but were hurried in their slippers and nightgowns to the trucks and cars which would take them to the front line.
Three main crossroads on the way to the Bosnian-held part of the town is where they are left to find their way to the other side. For most, this is a confusing journey; starting with the restrictions and curfews imposed on them by Herzeg-Bosnian authorities and the boys carrying guns, including the fact that they have been wrenched from their flats with running water and electricity. They go towards freedom, guarded by boys with guns, to face hunger, shelling and life without water and electricity in damp, crowded cellars. Their feelings towards the Croats are mixed. Many blame the ``newcomers'' from Listica, Grude and surrounding villages for their misfortune. They say their Croat neighbors from West Mostar are not the ones robbing them, raping and killing.
Suada Mulabegovic was raped by ten Croat soldiers. She was living alone with her mother. In the evening, two soldiers came to their door, hurried them out and took them close to the front line. There they asked for gold and money, threatening to kill them. The two women gave them what they had, and the mother was pushed across. Suada was taken to the nearby ruins and raped. The soldiers released her and Suada found her way through the rubble and ruins. She did not find her mother. The old lady, tired and lost in no-man's land, had stopped to rest and lay down on the floor of a ruined bank. She stayed there for eight days, drinking water from puddles. She was found by another group of refugees and they helped her to ``safety.''
Streets leading towards Bosnian lines are exposed to fire from both sides, so that even soldiers rarely dare enter them. The bodies of those killed on their journey remain on the narrow stretch of no-man's land.
Once across the front line, people expelled from West Mostar are accepted and registered by the Bosnian Army soldiers who hold the front line positions on the right bank. The refugees' journey is not over yet--they still have to cross the river. Only two bridges are in use now: the Old bridge and the American bridge. These are foot bridges, preferably crossed in the darkness, because both are exposed to snipers from the hills and high positions in the town. Groups cross in pitch darkness, helping each other, crying, dropping their bags. There are no flats waiting for them--they stay in the temporary shelter at the Mostar National Theater building and then look for some accommodation or go to their relatives and friends.
According to estimates by East Mostar authorities, there are up to 20,000 refugees in their part of the town including the suburbs. The aid the authorities provide is reduced to food rations from humanitarian help and occasional meals in the public kitchens. The military have priority and control the distribution.
Darkness in Mostar is the safest time. This is when most of the activities take place. Funerals, grave digging, collecting water, searching for food and visits to friends.
Life has moved into the cellars and lower floors of the wrecked buildings, partly due to fear from shelling and partly because all buildings have been destroyed. There, people spend their days and sleep on blankets, mattresses and carpets found in the deserted flats or given by those who can afford to help. Luckier tenants have stoves on which the little communes prepare their meals: lentils, beans and occasional portions of canned meat with rice--all coming from the humanitarian help. One of the misfortunes of East Mostar is the absence of a black market. Goods get exchanged only occasionally and money is basically worthless. In order to get a few eggs or some milk people have to undertake dangerous night journeys to nearby villages North and South of the town, the only available directions. All the roads leading there are exposed to fire from surrounding hills, either by the HVO or Chetniks.
Public kitchens organized by the local authorities offer two meals per day, with the same menu. They have often been the targets of shelling and many people were killed queuing for their meals, so that only rare persons risk it, most prefer to stay in the shelters.
The soldiers have priority, they get more food of better quality and are in a position to choose what comes with the convoys. This cuts the baby's food out of the choice almost completely. There is an enormous amount of hashish on the left bank (B-H), but no cigarettes. On the other hand, the HVO have everything. The men on this side came up with the idea of filling up an empty shell with hashish and firing it across. The other side sent it back (empty) but they tied cigarettes around it with cellotape and string. This is done regularly.
In the cellar of a devastated building that once housed the local tax office, Esad Humo, commander of the famous 41. Motorized Mostar brigade sits at the end of a long table, in the dim light supplied by a diesel battery. ``We will win, we have the heart,'' he says. The anxieties of the five-months-long siege are etched on his haggard, exhausted face. In spite of constant Croat attacks and a desperate shortage of arms, his men have secured a foothold on the right bank of the Neretva River, across from the Bosnian stronghold in East Mostar.
Amidst the burnt remains of Santiceva Street, the most dangerous front line, soldiers sit in damp, dark cellars, peering through holes at an enemy who is often only several meters away. They spend their days waiting, occasionally locating and ``silencing'' particularly troublesome snipers.
Soldiers spend two days on the front line, and two days resting. Croat POWs or local civilians bring them their food. The soldiers do not believe in negotiations, although they want the war to end as soon as possible. ``We are fighting for a Mostar where we will all live together, Moslems, Serbs, Croats--but only with those who haven't committed any atrocities. There are Serbs and Croats in our Army, they fought with us at first against the Chetniks, and now they are fighting against the Ustashis. But these are true citizens of Mostar... The Chetniks were real gentlemen compared to these guys. Most of this place was undamaged after the fighting with the Chetniks,'' says Almir, a tall, thin twenty-year-old with red hair and freckles. ``My mother is wounded, my brother was killed, my father is wounded. I wish I was somewhere else, somewhere abroad.'' Most of the soldiers' stories were alike: they have lost their flats, many were expelled or kept in prison. Almost all of them fought in HVO units against the Chetniks. It increases their anger and feeling of betrayal. ``God help the Ustashi when we start crossing the line!,'' adds Ramo, a slim man with a goatee.
Their only serious attack, on September 20, failed. They captured the strategic hill of Hum which dominates Mostar, and is situated to the South, and the village of Rastani to the North, but they managed to hold their positions for only a few hours. Croatian artillery forced them down the hill, and they lacked the artillery support to reply. The operation lasted 48 hours and involved 400 troops.
Arif Pasalic, Commander of the Fourth Corps which covers this area, claims that the operation was not a total loss, since: ``we managed to show our soldiers that the Croats are not invincible.'' He feels he was not sufficiently supported by Sarajevo. Half way through the operation, a ceasefire order came from Sarajevo and was obeyed by the few Bosnian artillery units that were available. Commander Pasalic cites this as the key reason for the failure of the operation, although he agrees that HVO artillery superiority was crucial. UN military observers say that for one hundred shells coming from West Mostar, only one gets fired from the Bosnian side.
The Bosnian Army is short of ammunition and arms. Still, they manage to produce weapons. One of their inventions is ``Little Thunder''--a 62mm fragmentation bomb that can be fired from a specially designed launcher or simply thrown. The casing is manufactured from the steel tubes used for traffic signs, and filled with pieces of metal and glass. The explosive comes from a 1.5 ton HVO mine that was discovered in a sewer on the Bosnian front line.
Ammunition convoys from Jablanica arrive constantly. However small the supplies are (Army sources say that 20-30 horses are employed), they are crucial for the continuation of fighting. The ammunition is brought by a Bosnian Army helicopter from Zenica to a hill near Jablanica, and then transferred to horses who take it to Bijelo Polje, north of Mostar. From there, the ammunition is driven by trucks and cars to the city under the cover of darkness. The front line runs parallel with the road and the vehicles are shot at throughout the journey. Two searchlights constantly traverse the road. Although the night run on this road is dangerous enough, undertaking it during the day would be fatal. The real action among the Bosnian troops starts when night falls. This is one of the lessons the Croats have learnt, and now Hum hill is beautifully lit with search lights all night long.
However under-equipped and exhausted the Bosnian soldiers may be, they have managed to capture an important part of the territory around Dreznica Gornja and Dreznica Donja, North of Mostar towards Jablanica. This might eventually enable them to use the main road as their supply route. However, recent developments suggest that the HVO have fought back and have managed to annul the initial successes of the Bosnian Army. This is another disappointment for the Bosnians, but they seem determined to fight on. ``We fight for what is ours, unlike the newcomers who are invaders. This makes us stronger and capable of winning,'' claims Commander Humo.