Bosnian Factions Agree to Let U.N. Convoys Pass

The Washington Post
November 19, 1993

GENEVA – The leaders of Bosnia’s three warring factions, meeting for the first time in two months, agreed today to stop shooting at U.N. aid convoys and allow them free passage throughout the war-torn country, steps that would help avert a humanitarian catastrophe this winter.

The agreement, brokered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, depends on the goodwill of all sides and lacks any enforcement provisions. As a result, the six-point “joint declaration” could have as short a life as the long list of previous accords on aid convoys and cease-fires.

Bosnia’s Serb and Croat leaders, whose forces are blamed for stopping aid shipments in a bid to starve and freeze the Muslim-led government into submission, pledged to abide by the pact. But Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic said the only way to ensure that the promises are honored is for the United States and its NATO allies to use force if convoys are blocked.

“The land corridors must be protected by force,” Silajdzic said after signing the agreement. But NATO has repeatedly refused to use military power unless U.N. troops deployed in Bosnia were in danger.

In a reflection of the gap between words spoken in Geneva and actions taken in Bosnia, Croat leader Mate Boban told reporters that his forces never had stood in the way of U.N. convoys seeking to enter the besieged Muslim sector of Mostar. He insisted that U.N. convoys had stopped on their own accord because of “security problems.” Generally it has been the threat of attacks by his forces that caused these security problems.

The meeting, the first in which the three sides’ leaders have participated since peace talks fell apart in late September, comes amid a blizzard of warnings that Bosnians face massive deaths from freezing and starvation this winter. Similar forecasts preceded last winter, but catastrophe was averted because the weather was exceptionally mild and fighting was relatively contained.

“This winter spells real disaster,” said Sadako Ogata, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in a speech at the start of today’s closed-door meeting. “The combination of war, of military blockades and of freezing temperatures provides for a terrible, deadly mix.”

Ogata, noting that early snow already covers parts of Bosnia, said she would recommend the immediate resumption of U.N. convoys into central Bosnia after they were halted last month. The suspension followed a series of attacks on aid convoys that culminated in the killing of a Danish driver on Oct. 26. The suspension meant that no food was reaching a region in which 1.5 million civilians survive on U.N. handouts and where some of them have resorted to eating animal feed.

Ogata painted a grim picture. She warned that today’s agreement, even if honored, will have a limited impact as long as the war continues. The problem, she said, is that the delivery of food and clothing is not an answer to the suffering of Bosnians. “Without peace, I don’t know whether the humanitarian catastrophe can be avoided,” she said.

News reports from Bosnia are not encouraging. A U.N. spokesman in Sarajevo said today that five inmates of an isolated and unheated mental hospital had died from the cold and others were wandering around naked for lack of clothes. The institution is located in Pazaric, in government-held territory near Sarajevo, but aid convoys must pass through Serb lines to reach it, and the Serbs have prevented this.

Also in Sarajevo, a British medical group said its doctors would no longer perform rehabilitative surgery because the patients were too weak and cold to survive such procedures, the Associated Press reported. The group’s program gave Sarajevans virtually their only chance for elective and reconstructive surgery because local doctors have limited their services to saving lives.

The situation would be alleviated if today’s agreement is honored. The joint declaration, signed by all sides, requires them to establish local cease-fires when U.N. convoys need to use a contested route. It also allows the United Nations to deliver special winter supplies, such as building materials and fuel, that in the past have been blocked because of their potential military uses.

On another key humanitarian issue, U.N. officials said Serb leader Radovan Karadzic refused today to allow the opening of a government-held airport in Tuzla, in north central Bosnia, for aid flights.

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.