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Town Has Survived Siege, Now Hopes for Better Future

December 10, 1995 GMT

EDITOR’S NOTE _ As diplomats prepare to sign the peace accord for Bosnia this week, people on both sides of the tortured republic’s front line are preparing for the consequences. In Gorazde, which for 3 1/2 years was a Muslim island surrounded by Serbs, residents survived through resourcefulness and stubbornness. Now comes their reward _ the peace accord cuts a land bridge through Serb territory to Sarajevo. Serbs living in its path are giving up their homes rather than submit to the enemy’s rule. To the residents of Gorazde, it offers hope that they may emerge from what had become a living hell.

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By MARK J. PORUBCANSKY

Associated Press Writer

GORAZDE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ This is a town that came to the gates of hell.

For 3 1/2 years as an island of government-held territory surrounded by Serbs, the mostly Muslim residents of Gorazde held out by sheer stubbornness and a few slender threads.

Winter, spring, summer, fall: No heat, no water, no electricity except what little could be generated by a fleet of homemade paddlewheels floating in the Drina River. Hungry people trekked 45 miles over Serb-held mountains for food. Several thousand people died.

With the peace accord being signed in Paris this week and NATO troops trickling into Bosnia to enforce it, the 60,000 residents of Gorazde are finally allowing themselves a glimmer of hope.

Not only have they stood firm, it is their Serb foes who are relinquishing their land so that Gorazde can be connected to Sarajevo.

``I hope it will be better when the Dayton plan is signed,″ said Zajko Sovsic, 40, perusing a market dressed in a tired red sweater and leather jacket. ``When NATO comes, I firmly believe that it will be better.″

Better wouldn’t take much in Gorazde.

``We’ve been an island,″ said Sovsic. ``You can imagine being one day without electricity and water _ we’ve been living without it for 3 1/2 years.″

From the doctor who operated on war casualties without electricity to Sovsic, who was a factory worker back in the prewar days when people actually had jobs, Gorazde residents have high hopes for peace.

The enclave, about 120 square miles of low mountains, was one of six U.N.-protected ``safe areas.″ It was the largest of the three in eastern Bosnia and the only one to survive _ Srebrenica and Zepa, to the north, fell to the Serbs in July.

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Gorazde itself was subjected to repeated attack. NATO launched its first airstrikes in April 1994 to protect it.

Alija Begovic, 42, a general practitioner who ran the hospital, estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 people were killed in Gorazde, 80 percent of them civilians.

An unexploded shell still sits with its nose buried in the dirt just a few steps from the main entrance of the sand-bagged, three-story hospital.

There are now hopes that the suffering is gradually ending. The opening of convoy routes has alleviated a food shortage, and officials are negotiating for electricity.

On Saturday morning, an outdoor market was crammed with people buying and selling potatoes, leeks, home-canned goods, tied bundles of flat brown tobacco leaves and all manner of used clothing.

Teen-age girls chatted and walked arm-in-arm past shell- and bullet-pocked buildings. Groups of soldiers stood talking and smoking. A few middle-aged women had taken fur stoles out of storage and draped them around their necks.

Local officials have made preliminary contacts with the Serbs to patch transmission lines in the hopes of getting electricity by Christmas.

Gorazde sits between two Serb-held towns on the Drina, Visegrad and Foca. The head of the district government, Rijad Rascic, a tall, modest man with thinning curly hair and broken teeth, has offered to let Serbs transmit electricity from a dam at Visegrad to Foca _ if Gorazde gets a share.

U.N. civil affairs officer Brian Sadler said he sees reason for optimism in such practical problem-solving. ``The hope for the future is that everyone is thinking like a community again,″ he said.

It is due to a mix of problem-solving and stubbornness that Gorazde survived at all.

When Serbs refused to allow food aid in, Gorazde residents trekked over the mountains through 45 miles of Serb-held territory to Grebak, near Sarajevo, which was the nearest government-held spot. Men, women, and sometimes children picked up bags of flour and lugged them back.

The trip normally took 12 to 16 hours of night walking, and some men carried as much as 175 pounds on their backs.

``You can try it,″ Rascic said. ``Dark nights without a moon. A small compass. Up and down mountains. Lots of creeks. Heavy baggage. Nothing you could see.″

Some people didn’t survive. But the flour came through.

Gorazde residents generated a little of their own electricity by building paddlewheels. Dozens of the contraptions, floating on oil drums, are bobbing on the green-blue Drina, taking advantage of its swift current.

Bunched under bridges, each is connected to the shore by a wire that runs to houses and apartment buildings. Each can generate enough electricity to give five households a little bit of light.

Begovic didn’t have electricity in the hospital, but his team of a dozen doctors did the best they could. ``We couldn’t do abdominal surgery, and a lot of people died,″ he said.

Despite the horrors, there are hopes that at least some of the Serbs who left when war broke out _ the town was once about a quarter Serb _ will return.

``I really hope they live with us in the future,″ Sovsic said. ``I had a lot of close friends on the other side.″

But can they live with those who were in the surrounding hills, firing down on Gorazde?

``That’s the most delicate question,″ said Begovic. ``You don’t know who was on that hill.″