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Mostar: a Warsaw Ghetto in Bosnia

Some 50,000 people are trapped in a pocket of eastern Mostar by Bosnian Croat attackers

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.''

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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.

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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. Their families were bused to the front lines and herded by foot into eastern Mostar. The ``ethnic cleansing'' is still continuing, with new civilians arriving daily, many driven across the damaged Ottoman-era bridge that made Mostar one of former Yugoslavia's main tourist stops.

``I came three days ago,'' one woman says. ``They came into my building, kicked in the doors, and ordered everyone out.

``We were forced to leave our keys. They came with trucks and stole everything from our apartments,'' she continues. ``They took us in a minibus. It had no seats in it. There were about 19 people. We were forced to run across the old bridge.''

The influx is exacerbating the already desperate conditions in the Muslim pocket, much of it filled with the stench of human waste. Every building has been hit, and many of them are fire-blackened skeletons. Large numbers are uninhabitable, their roofs and windows blown off.

Residents and refugees pack apartment block basements. They have no electricity. The only water is from either a tanker truck or the river. But a trip to either means risking HVO snipers, who fire at anyone straying into the intersections of streets leading into the pocket. Those taken prisoner by the HVO have been forced to work along the front lines, building barricades.

Food stocks are sufficient for one meal per person per day in communal kitchens. The HVO has allowed in only two UN aid convoys since the fighting began, both in the last month.

The first convoy was prevented from departing for three days by Muslims terrified of being abandoned. ``The most difficult thing is that I have no food to give my children,'' Aida Dzuliman sighs, as her toddling daughter chews candy thrown to the crowds of begging, filthy youngsters who surround the armored cars of Spanish UN troops protecting the second convoy.

The HVO wants Mostar as the capital of the self-declared Croatian Republic of Herceg-Bosna, the ministate proclaimed by Bosnian Croat leader Mate Boban in anticipation of an ethnic partition of Bosnia. That declaration fueled charges that Croatia and Serbia secretly agreed to such a partition in advance of the war. Wider plan of conquest

Bosnian Army Commander Pasalic says the HVO also wants Mostar as part of a wider plan to take the entire Neretva Valley, with its agricultural wealth and hydroelectric dams. But Pasalic vows to block that outcome.

``Mostar will either be a multiethnic city or it will be ours,'' he declares. ``If we get a fair agreement in Geneva that would give the Muslims a fair amount of territory and access to the [Adriatic] Sea, we would happily accept it,'' he says. ``If we don't get a fair agreement, I expect a major offensive before winter for final control of the Neretva Valley all the way to the sea.''

Pasalic's men will fight, he says, to widen a corridor along which reinforcements and arms trickle into eastern Mostar on a dangerous, two-day mountain trek from the town of Jablanica.

They would seek to extend the corridor south to Neum, a sliver of Adriatic coast that Mr. Boban and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman refuse to relinquish.

``No one has the right, particularly the Republic of Croatia, to say we can't have that land,'' Pasalic says. ``If there is no political agreement, our only option is to pursue this with military means because that is the way the other two sides got their territories.

``The main goal of our struggle now is to secure sufficient living space for the Muslim people and other nationalities who want to live with us,'' Pasalic says.

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