Bosnia Acts to End Aid Boycott; Cease-Fire Declared to Assist Shipments

The Washington Post
February 21, 1993

SARAJEVO, Feb. 20 – Under international pressure, the Bosnian government called on the Sarajevo city council today to lift its controversial boycott of humanitarian aid and declared a unilateral cease-fire to facilitate aid shipments.

The government’s turnabout is considered likely to be complied with by local authorities in Sarajevo and in several other Bosnian cities that have mounted sympathy blockades.

Combined with Friday’s order from U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for a resumption of briefly suspended U.N. deliveries, the decision here should mean relief shipments to the besieged Bosnian capital will resume soon.

The last 10 days have seen a bewildering array of lessons in the Balkan politics of food. Although the self-imposed boycott subjected the Bosnian side to charges of starving its own citizens, it highlighted the spottiness of U.N. relief deliveries and revealed divisions within the United Nations about what should be done to combat Serb militias that forbid passage of supply convoys.

“The world finally realized what is going on and who is blocking humanitarian goods,” said a government statement.

Sarajevo’s city council shocked U.N. officials on Feb. 10 by refusing to accept new relief supplies and refusing to distribute food that had already arrived here. The council said its unusual protest was aimed at highlighting the plight of as many as 275,000 people in eastern Bosnia who are getting no relief supplies because of Serb blockades.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, angered by the boycott and anxious to show it can deliver aid, responded by dispatching an urgent convoy to the most embattled enclave, Cerska, where as many as 25,000 people are said to be on the verge of starvation after surviving for 10 months without relief shipments. But the 10-truck convoy ended up parked on a roadside after Bosnian Serb militiamen refused to let it pass.

After a four-day standoff with the Serbs, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata abruptly announced on Wednesday that her agency was suspending its aid deliveries to eastern Bosnia and to Sarajevo because of the risks involved and the obstruction that its employees face in the line of duty, primarily from Serbs. She recalled the Cerska convoy.

Ogata’s move grabbed headlines and shook the U.N. Security Council and top generals in the U.N. Protection Force here, who had not been consulted. Her implicit message — that stronger action had to be taken to ensure delivery of aid — seemed to be a criticism of the cautious U.N. response to the Bosnian war.

The Security Council has been reluctant to take stronger action against the Serbs, fearing that attempts to shoot through Serb blockades would cause casualties among the 8,000 U.N. troops escorting relief convoys.

Until now, U.N. officials have not approved airdrops into areas that the Serbs are blocking by road. The U.N. troops have never fired at Serb militiamen blocking their path, despite authorization to use all “necessary means.”

{In Washington, President Clinton said he was considering ordering U.S. forces to airdrop emergency food and supplies to eastern Bosnia.

{“There are a lot of children in Bosnia who now can’t get food and medicine because . . . the trucks which have been delivering those supplies have been stopped,” Clinton told a group of children during a question-and-answer session at the White House. “We have an agreement to try and start the trucks up again, but we may have to go and drop some aid in to them.”}

On Friday, just two days after Ogata’s announcement, Boutros-Ghali weighed in by rebuking the Japanese commissioner and ordering her to resume aid deliveries. U.N. officials said Ogata had acted beyond her authority but they did not promise any new measures to ensure the safety of relief workers or their freedom of movement.

Meanwhile, the self-imposed blockade of Sarajevo was still in place and faced mounting international criticism for being a Machiavellian move that sacrificed people’s health for the sake of political gains. That now seems likely to change in the wake of the Bosnian government’s decision.

Officials here are declaring victory in their effort to highlight the aid shipment problem, which was illustrated today when two impromptu convoys destined for the besieged town of Zepa reportedly were blocked by Serb militiamen. Bosnian officials are bitter about criticism of their boycott, saying that the U.N. Security Council focused too heavily on the consequences of the self-imposed blockade rather than on the causes of it — namely, the refusal of Serbs to permit aid deliveries in eastern Bosnia.

“We had to make a critical mass of disaster,” said Bosnian Vice President Zlatko Lagumdzija. “But finally we forced people in the U.N. to name who is actually blocking them.”

The government’s announcement of the unilateral cease-fire on all battlefields came in a one-line sentence at the end of its statement. Cease-fires come and go in Bosnia like the winds, but this is the first time in recent months that the Bosnian government has offered an all-front truce. There was no immediate response from Serb authorities.

The Bosnian government apparently hopes to ease the path of aid deliveries and make the point that the Serbs, who control 70 percent of the country, are intent on blocking food from reaching starving women and children.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.