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Struggle For Survival Takes Turn For The Worse As Water Cutoff Persists

July 14, 1993

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Bathing and shaving, washing clothes, flushing toilets, nourishing children: the simplest acts involve wrenching choices when water becomes a weapon of war.

With 98 percent of Sarajevo’s regular water supply cut off, residents confront a rising risk of disease and a daily ordeal of lugging home heavy jugs after waiting as much as 15 hours in line at a well.

″I’ve read a lot of military history, and I haven’t read of anything like this,″ said Bedrudin Makic, 71, a retired army colonel who carries water for his seven-member family and an elderly neighbor. ″Genghis Khan came, and it wasn’t this bad.″

Sarajevo’s electrical supply has been spotty since last summer, shortly after Serbs began their siege of the city. But for about a month now, there has been no electricity and no natural gas.

Electrical lines that provide the city with power run across battle zones. When U.N. workers try to fix them, they come under attack.

For two weeks, Serbs have blocked deliveries of U.N. diesel fuel from the airport. They cut the city’s natural gas line several weeks ago.

As a result, there is no power to run water pumps, not enough clean water to ensure hygiene, and not enough fuel to boil unsafe water.

In one neighborhood, Dobrinja, 12 people were killed by a shell Monday as they waited in line for water.

The crisis is not just the result of Serb actions. Bosnian Croats control the city’s main power plant at Kakanj, about 30 miles northwest of Sarajevo.

Bosnian authorities have not allowed the repair of a power line that could ease the crisis: The line would also provide energy to a Serb ammunition plant in Vogosca, just north of Sarajevo.

People who live around Kosevo hospital repeatedly swarm around a tanker truck on its thrice-weekly deliveries and make off with water desperately needed by doctors and patients. Throughout the city, people set out buckets to retrieve some of the heavy rain that fell on Monday and Tuesday.

Emina Talovic, a secretary at the Sarajevo water and sewage department, treks four miles daily to get water. Sometimes she borrows a small cart, but just as often carries the jugs by hand.

Many Sarajevans face much longer hikes to the nearest clean-water source, and most get enough water for drinking and basic cooking. But bathing, laundry and toilet flushing require careful calculations.

″Foreigners must think we’re a dirty people,″ Mrs. Talovic said. ″But we still have pride. We try our best to keep as clean as we did before.″

Her boss, department director Predrag Lukac, said the water system is intact and could be in service rapidly if the pumps regain power.

But he said the sewage system is badly clogged because of the low flow of waste water and would need extensive cleanup. The clogged sewers emit bad odors in some neighborhoods and attract rats, he said.

″I can’t fathom these people who use water as a weapon to achieve their political goals,″ he said Tuesday. ″Parents who throughout the war have been taking the best care of their children now are forced to take risks, to give them water they know might be unsafe.″

Dr. Risto Tervahauta of the World Health Organization said that because many people were forced to drink impure water, Sarajevo was experiencing at least 200 new cases of diarrhea a day.

So far, no typhoid or cholera have been confirmed, but cases of dysentery and hepatitis are increasing rapidly. ″Unless circumstances change, it has to become worse and worse,″ he said.

Tervahauta noted that Sarajevans already are weakened by 16 months of stress and substandard diet. That lowers their resistance to disease.

The only regular water source still functioning is a line descending from nearby Mount Jahorina that accounts for 2 percent of the normal supply. That water is clean, as is water from several small wells near the city center.

But Tervahauta said water from shallow wells near the Miljacka river in western Sarajevo appears to be contaminated.

He said efforts to avert an epidemic were rudimentary: distributing purification tablets and pouring a pre-mixed chlorine solution into jugs filled at communal taps.

U.N. peacekeeping officers said Tuesday the utility crisis could be eased within days under a tentative agreement between the warring sides. However, agreements often fall apart fast in Bosnia.

Maj. Nicolas Studer, U.N. chief engineer in Sarajevo, said the Serbs have agreed to reopen the natural gas line, and Bosnian forces would allow a government-held electric plant behind Serb lines to provide power to a water- pumping station in Ilidza, a Serb-held suburb.

This would restore all utilities in Ilidza, and would restore water to western neighborhoods particularly hard-hit by the cutoff.

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