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NY TIMES...12/24:



c.1995 N.Y. Times News Service

GORAZDE, Bosnia-Herzegovina - Surrounded by Bosnian Serb troops, its populace unable to enter or leave freely and its battered, pockmarked houses without electricity, heat or running water, this town, in the eyes of many, is the Achilles' heel of the Dayton peace accord.

The small Muslim-held pocket around Gorazde was rescued from an assault by Serbian forces in July after NATO threatened air strikes to defend it. Now, NATO has vowed to create and defend a narrow 60-mile corridor linking Sarajevo to the eastern enclave to keep it alive.

But the Bosnian Serbs see the corridor, and continued Bosnian government control of the city, as a freakish design by American cartographers that will be viable only as long as NATO forces remain. And Western military officials say that the Gorazde enclave is perhaps the most volatile flash point along Bosnia's 1,000-mile front line.

``Would you allow Iran to run a corridor through the heartland of the United States?'' asked Slavko Topalovic, the senior Serbian leader in Kopaci, the closest Serbian-held town to Gorazde.

``You think that this corridor has any chance of survival? It will not last. It cuts the main road between our two large towns of Visegrad and Foca. Communication and travel for the Serbs here is difficult.

``Once NATO leaves, the corridor will collapse. This is all an artificial creation. Eastern Bosnia belongs to us.''

Western military officials who deal with Gorazde say the attempt to maintain the enclave is fraught with risk. And they question the ability of the Bosnian government, once NATO forces leave, to patrol the narrow swath connecting the city to the main body of Bosnian government-held territory.

``The whole plan to safeguard Gorazde is filled with inconsistencies,'' said Maj. Peter Cameron, the British officer who until Wednesday was the highest-ranking U.N. commander in the enclave.

``On the one hand, the Dayton agreement says Bosnia is a single state. On the other hand, you have to build and protect a land corridor so the people in Gorazde can survive.

``This is going to be very hard to implement, because the strategic value of Gorazde to the Serbs is immense. The Serbs are not going to give Gorazde up easily, and they are not happy about being pushed out of this corridor.''

There is little left in the bombed-out enclave or the surrounding Serbian villages. Trenches, earthworks and the skeletal, roofless remains of houses, churches, mosques and shops testify to some of the most vicious fighting in the Bosnia war.

The Bosnian Serb troops ringing the city, many of whom took part in the capture and execution of thousands of Muslims in Zepa and Srebrenica in the summer, remain grimly in place behind their heavy mortars and mounted machine guns.

At one position, near the burned and gutted remains of a 15th-century church, Serbian soldiers ducked and crouched as they scrambled along the front line to avoid being spotted by Muslim snipers. Cease-fire violations, as in other parts of Bosnia, keep troops around Gorazde jittery.

On the other side of the line, Gorazde itself is little more than a ghetto. Its muddy streets are swollen with thousands of families driven at the start of the war from dozens of towns and villages elsewhere along the Drina River valley. Families live packed in unheated buildings that bear the scars of the shelling.

The 60,000 people here survive on the food carried in by daily aid convoys. Each morning as the huge white tractor-trailers crawl into the city, a ragged collection of spectators gathers on the side of the street to applaud. Before the cease-fire, supplies could often be carried in only on mules over the surrounding mountains and through Serbian lines.

In the afternoon, crowds of silent men and women gather to scan the list on Steva Helete square for those who have parcels from the outside brought in by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

``Our two children are in Germany,'' said Muniba Arapovic, 63, dressed in an oversized man's brown vinyl jacket. ``My husband and I come here hoping that one day they will send us a small box of food.''

Two of the three factories in and around Gorazde are gutted shells, their rusted machinery twisted by shells, charred by fire and home to packs of stray dogs. The third, controlled and operated by the Muslims in the enclave, is a munitions plant.

Water is carried in buckets up from the Drina, or drawn from wells and streams, and the only electricity comes from small homemade water-powered generators, moored to bridges, that pump out just enough current to turn on a few dim light bulbs. At dusk the town goes dead. Batteries, like toilet paper, are so rare and expensive that most people long ago gave up any idea of trying to acquire them.

It is a measure of the desperation that those inside the Gorazde pocket, most of them trapped here since the war began over three years ago, long to visit Sarajevo.

``This is a good place to be born and a good place to die,'' said Irham Ceco, 18, who has watched many of his friends lose their lives in the fighting to defend the town.

``But it is no longer a good place to live. These streets are like the walls of a jail. We will flee at the first chance to another country that has never heard of Bosnia, never heard of Gorazde.''

If the international community does not pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the area around Gorazde, it is destined to remain an impoverished Muslim outpost ringed by a sea of hostile, bitter Serbs. And unless there is employment, large numbers of people will probably leave.

NATO planners said they did not know when they would begin to build a road through the corridor to connect the two cities, leaving everyone inside trapped for a few more weeks, if not months.

Bosnian government commanders, who organized a spirited defense of the town, have begun to despair that with the world focused on Sarajevo and other parts of Bosnia, Gorazde will slowly sink with neglect until another outbreak of fighting.

``The future is black,'' said Brig. Gen. Hamid Bahto, the commander of the Bosnian army in Gorazde. ``So many people have now lost family members in this ethnic conflict that it will be hard to ever agree on anything again with the Serbs. Our industry, our roads, our communications systems and our infrastructure are all devastated. We live now as if it were the 19th century, and for this generation there is little sign that things will get better.''

Gorazde was one of three Muslim-held enclaves in eastern Bosnia to be declared safe areas by the United Nations in February 1994. The two other eastern ``safe areas,'' Zepa and Srebrenica, were overrun in July 1995, and the Serbs appeared poised to take Gorazde when NATO announced that any Serbian assault would trigger heavy NATO air strikes. The threat worked, but it left NATO planners scrambling to figure out how to sustain a Muslim enclave in the middle of Serbian territory.

``The enclave is a freak, an accident, created by guilty European leaders who realized after the fall of Zepa and Srebrenica that they had to act to save the U.N. mission in Bosnia from collapse,'' said a senior U.N. official in Sarajevo, who spoke on condition that he remain unidentified. ``It is not a practical solution.''

Serbian leaders have long charged that Gorazde is the link through which Sarajevo will forge a land bridge to the Sanjak, a Muslim region of southern Serbia and Montenegro. From here, Serbs argue, Bosnia will be tied to Muslim Albania and, indirectly, Turkey.

The Serbs who ring Gorazde boast that they have blocked the bridge that would carry Islamic fundamentalism into Europe. They make no apologies for the shelling and sniping that has killed hundreds, if not thousands, in Gorazde.

While the two sides have met under the auspices of the United Nations to try to organize the repair of water mains, electrical service, telephone communications and roads, the Serbs do not appear in a hurry to cooperate.

``Look around you,'' said Velimir Gigovic, the Serbian mayor of Kopaci. ``This place is a wreck. We can barely feed ourselves. Where do you think we are going to get all the money to repair the infrastructure for these Muslims? If someone wants to come in from the outside and do all this, fine. But don't expect anything from us.''

Since the Dayton agreement, the Serbs and the Muslims in the enclave have exchanged about a dozen bodies of Serbian and Muslim soldiers killed in the war. Neither side has made any move to release prisoners, as called for in the agreement. The Serbs are believed to be holding about 500 Muslim prisoners of war and the Muslims have one or two dozen Serbs. Neither side will disclose figures.

In the corridor to be handed over to the government, the Serbs are looting, burning and carting away everything from plumbing fixtures to roof tiles.

``What do you expect?'' asked Gigovic, seated in his office in Kopaci, two miles east of Gorazde.

``These Serb families are being forced from their homes because NATO has decided to seize land we fought during the whole war to defend. These families need building material to put up new homes in safe areas. This is normal.''

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Dzevat Omeragic Davor Wagner Nermin Zukic