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Once-Besieged Town Defiantly Clings to Its Lifeline to the World


The story of the southeastern Bosnian city of Gorazde begins with a road.

Virtually surrounded by Bosnian Serb territory, Gorazde is connected to the rest of Muslim-held Bosnia by one unpaved mountainous track - undrivable in winter.

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Every day, Gorazdens test the freedom of movement promised in the United States-brokered 1995 Dayton peace accord. They travel in unescorted buses through 30 miles of Bosnian Serb territory to or from Sarajevo, the capital. And every day Serbs in the city of Rogatitsa pelt the Gorazde bus with stones and other items, shattering windows and hitting passengers.

This daily test of stamina for Gorazde's citizens is reminiscent of the 1992-1994 Serbian siege, when residents fended off starvation. As national elections Sept. 14 threaten to solidify the Bosnian Serb hold around Gorazde, the 30,000 residents are gearing up to defend the town again.

The United Nations international police station in Gorazde estimates it has received 1,500 complaints of rock-throwing at vehicles coming to Gorazde since NATO ended protective convoys to and from the city in June.

Capt. Leslie Porter, a policewoman from Washington working as a UN police monitor in Gorazde, says the police chief in the nearby Serb-held town of Rogatitsa has refused to help stop the rock throwing. Captain Porter says she's trying to get international nongovernmental groups to stop giving aid to Rogatitsa. And, she says, "I am also trying to get the Rogatitsa police chief fired."

Two phones connect to the outside world

Sparkling on the banks of the river Drina, Gorazde offers a hard life to those who stay here. They grow vegetables in gardens, wash in the river, and raise livestock. There's no running water. Two satellite phone lines connect the town to the outside world. Generators provide electricity from 8 a.m. to midnight.

The West's goal of an ethnically intermingled Bosnia has been transformed during nine months of peace into a landscape of rigidly divided ethnic enclaves where mistrust between groups is high. In many cities, but especially in Gorazde, residents are preparing to protect themselves from ethnic violence.

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In the Gorazde post office, 40 people sit in the half dark waiting for a turn to place a call to relatives living elsewhere. This is the one place where the isolation and desperation of Gorazdens can be felt. The tension is palpable, as speakers yell into phones to try to make plans to visit, or to find out where relatives are.

But bound by having withstood a siege together, Gorazdens have a keen sense of community and self-reliance.

Distrust for the government of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic is strong. But as elections near, distrust of surrounding Serb villages is stronger. In the past two weeks, Gorazde has been metamorphosed by the green and white flags of Mr. Izetbegovic's Party for Democratic Action (SDA) hanging from private homes and businesses everywhere.

"The people who were skeptical of SDA are now leaning toward it out of fear and not wanting to split the Bosnian Muslim vote," says an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is overseeing the election.

Gorazdens know that if war starts again, their position is one of the most precarious in Bosnia. "It's not politically correct to say this, but Gorazde is militarily indefensible," says an American official with Military Professional Resources Inc., a private US company hired to train Bosnian Federation forces under the $400-million US train-and-equip program. But Gorazdens have defied the fact of their military indefensibility in the past and are bracing to do it again.

Frustrated Bosnian Serbs pelt aid convoys

"I guess I should clean my guns," jokes Edin Chulov, a school teacher turned local war hero. Gorazde - the enclave that escaped the "ethnic cleansing" of nearby Srebrenica and Zepa - is the darling of international aid organizations, which continue to truck building material to the town. The World Bank recently gave Gorazde money to rebuild two schools.

But perhaps most inimical to the future of Gorazde is Bosnian Serb jealousy: Serbs see they are getting less aid than the Muslims and Croats and pelt aid convoys with stones as they pass through Rogatitsa.

As the bus to Sarajevo leaves Gorazde at 2 p.m., people lean out of their shops and cars to wave. Most residents think that, come winter, Gorazde will be cut off from the rest of Bosnia once again.

Later, as the bus passes through Rogatitsa, the passengers duck down in their seats as a wave of stones, tomatoes, and apples hits the windows.

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