Mostar: A Town Where Only the River Has Running Water

By Bellamy, Christopher | The Independent (London, England), February 5, 1994 | Go to article overview
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Mostar: A Town Where Only the River Has Running Water

Bellamy, Christopher, The Independent (London, England)

IT is reckoned to be the worst place in Bosnia-Herzegovina, apart perhaps from Srebrenica. The UN commander, British Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, visits east Mostar today. His visit will probably mean another let-up in the shelling from the Croatian side, as there was on Tuesday and Wednesday, when the UN commander of all the forces in the former Yugoslavia, General Jean Cot, came here and a prefabricated hospital was delivered by the UN.

Normally east Mostar (a Bosnian army and Muslim enclave straggling 5km along the River Neretva and 2km wide) lives - just - under a fusillade of uncannily accurate sniper fire from increasingly skilled marksmen and, the local command alleges, bombs dropped from Croatian helicopters. General Rose will be interested in those reports. Nato's "Deny Flight" operation is supposed to stop aircraft being used over Bosnia for warlike purposes.

It will be instantly obvious to General Rose why this place, where an estimated 58,000 people have been effectively under siege since May last year, is so lethal. Two thousand, it is believed, have died, mostly civilians. To the south-west, Croat-held Mount Hum overlooks much of the town. The streets are channels for sniper fire. Nothing prepared me for the sheer, terrifying closeness, frequency and precision of the threats when I stumbled out of a Spanish armoured troop carrier. Sarajevo has nothing on the degradation and squalor and total lack of amenities in east Mostar: no water, apart from the River Neretva itself and no power.

For the first few months of the seven-month war east Mostar received no aid. Now it gets some, but bread and beans make the most boring of diets. You can avoid the snipers by moving carefully; night brings some respite from them. They have night sights, the deputy commander of the Bosnian IV Corps told me, but they are not effective.

If a sniper round hits you, body armour is little help. At over a kilometre, a half-inch calibre sniper round will smash armour or take your head right off. The marksmen are skilled. One man was exposed for three seconds and received a bullet through the neck.

You cannot guarantee avoiding the mortar bombs unless you stay underground. Mercifully, the Yugoslavs were fond of reinforced concrete as a building material. In the middle of east Mostar, you would get the impression that it had a population of 50, not 50,000. People live in cellars or ground-floor rooms, dimly lit, and rarely venture out, except to carry water.

The room I visited, where 35 people live, mostly refugees from the west bank of the city, was Dickensian. The walls were blackened by candle smoke; people sat around in blankets.

The Croats hold most of the west bank, which I saw on Tuesday. It still has many of the traits of a normal city, with people walking about and sitting in cafes.

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