Mostar: A Warsaw Ghetto in Bosnia Some 50,000 People Are Trapped in a Pocket of Eastern Mostar by Bosnian Croat Attackers

Article excerpt

THERE is no room left in the cemeteries of the encircled Muslim pocket of eastern Mostar.

"Cemeteries are full, so {people} are buried in the parks," says Dragan Milavic, as gunfire crackles in the street outside. "People bury bodies at night because it is too dangerous in the day."

The physician's face is waxy white from months of toiling with little sleep in the sunless confines of his basement clinic in eastern Mostar's makeshift hospital.

Another in a tide of stretcher teams arrives, threading between nurses tending the wounded in every room and hallway. On the stretcher sits an elderly, bloodied man, the latest victim of the snipers of the Croatian Defense Council, or HVO, entrenched 200 yards away on the west bank of the Neretva River, which divides this city.

The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, now 17 months old, has become infamous for savagery against civilians, mostly Muslims targeted by genocidal Bosnian Serb "ethnic cleansing." Conditions are especially grim here in the Muslim enclave of eastern Mostar, an urban battlefield virtually sealed off to UN aid convoys. Only a handful of foreign journalists have made it in.

Bosnian Croat forces have herded an estimated 50,000 Muslim men, women, and children into a squalid area that evokes images of the ghetto in which the Nazis imprisoned Warsaw's Jews during World War II. Captive on the east bank

More than 400 Muslims, mostly civilians, have been killed and 3,000 wounded since May, when the HVO began driving them across the Neretva into a downtown, mile-long section of two streets that parallel the river's east bank.

The situation is certain to become more severe as winter approaches. Dr. Milavic worries that his hospital's old building will fail to withstand the foul weather because of damage to the walls and roof from HVO shellfire. "We are facing a catastrophe," he warns.

The international community has shown little initiative to halt the killing here, other than to issue vague threats of sanctions against Croatia, the HVO's political and financial patron.

Mediators Lord David Owen of the European Community and Thorvald Stoltenberg of the United Nations have tried and failed to secure a truce. The EC agreed Sept. 11 to administer Mostar, but only in the event that the fighting stops.

Eastern Mostar is a shooting gallery. An average of 50 casualties occur every day, mostly civilians hit by snipers or mortars. Its lightly armed Bosnian Army defenders confront HVO troops, artillery, and tanks dug in along the west bank of the Neretva and entrenched just north and south of the Muslim pocket.

Bosnian Serb forces, driven from Mostar last year by a Bosnian Army-HVO alliance, sit to the east, poised atop majestic escarpments that form one side of the Neretva Valley.

The HVO turned on its former Muslim allies on May 9, apparently intent on capturing all of Bosnia's second largest city, where the prewar population of 126,000 was 35 percent Muslim, 33 percent Croat, 19 percent Serb, with a few minorities.

"We were betrayed. We were knifed in our back," says Arif Pasalic, Mostar's Bosnian Army commander. "Now we are fighting for survival."

The Bosnian Army launched a counterattack on June 29; Muslims still in the HVO mutinied, seizing a key barrack. That prompted the HVO to sweep thousands of Muslims from their homes in the surrounding area of Western Herzegovina, the hub of the Croat ministate endorsed by Lord Owen and Mr. Stoltenberg in their proposal to divide Bosnia into three ethnic ministates.

Men were hurled into makeshift prisons. …