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FIRST PERSON : Life on Road Shows How Bosnia Will Test U.S. Patience : Culture: Keeping the peace? How about just keeping the stubborn local drivers moving?


JABLANICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The Bosnian Muslim bus driver was blocking the road and nothing could persuade him to move, not a Pakistani MP, a squad of British soldiers, a U.N. convoy or two frustrated American journalists.

The driver and his passengers had been trapped all night by the worst snowstorm to hit Bosnia in at least 25 years. By morning, the bus still could not make it up the slippery grade. And so the driver stopped in the middle of the road and refused to budge, preventing hundreds of cars, trucks and buses from moving in either direction.

The Muslims here have a saying, roughly translated: "To be patient is to be saved." And this bus driver was going to wait to be saved. No amount of cajoling, pleading and arguing could get him to move aside.

Perhaps the episode offers a glimpse of what is in store for the U.S. troops as they arrive to help a proud but war-weary people, many of whom may not be eager for the help that is about to descend on them from the outside world.

If British and Pakistani soldiers operating under the banner of the United Nations can't clear a traffic jam, how easy will it be for North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops to enforce the terms of peace and separate the warring Bosnian Muslims, Croats and Serbs?

Times photographer Carolyn Cole and I, accompanied by our driver and guide, Zarko Perisin, were caught in last week's snowstorm as we made our way to Tuzla--headquarters of the U.S. operation in Bosnia--to cover the arrival of American forces.

What should have been a nine-hour, 240-mile drive from the coastal Croatian town of Split to Tuzla in northeastern Bosnia took three days of marathon driving over snowy, icy, muddy, rutted roads, much of it at a speed of less than 10 miles an hour.

Throughout central Bosnia-Herzegovina, traffic came to a virtual standstill on every highway and back road. Huge military convoys of tanks and trucks hauling equipment to prepare for NATO's arrival were repeatedly stuck behind little snowbound Yugos and Zastavas. Hundreds, if not thousands of people were stranded overnight and forced to sleep in their vehicles in sub-freezing weather.

On Wednesday, our first day on the road, we tried to skirt the storm and drove east to Mostar, once one of the most beautiful cities of Bosnia but now devastated by war. Much of the ancient city center was destroyed by the town's own Croatians and Muslims battling each other before they formed an alliance to fight the Serbs.

Mostar's renowned, centuries-old arched stone bridge--for which the town was named--now lies in ruins, the victim of shelling by the Croatians. Gutted buildings and charred tree trunks are all that remain of tree-lined boulevards in the city center.

Leaving Mostar, our two rugged, 4-wheel-drive Mercedes Benzes fell in with a small convoy of jeeps carrying Red Cross workers. By nightfall, we made our way to the Muslim town of Jablanica in mountainous central Bosnia, about 40 miles southwest of Sarajevo.


Throughout the town, Bosnian boys too young for military service lurked in the shadows and pelted the arriving strangers with snowballs. American Red Cross workers operating in the town said they had grown accustomed to such signs of hostility from some Bosnians who disdain the U.N. troops--and anyone who might seem to be connected with them.

"They think we're the U.N.," one said. "But at least it's just snowballs and not bullets."

The Red Cross helped us find accommodations with a friendly Bosnian family that had a large flat--five flights up with no running water and little heat. By local standards it was luxurious. Our bill for the night--$13 a person--exceeded the family's monthly income.

Leaving before dawn Thursday, we drove north and encountered the intransigent bus driver a few miles outside of town. After hours of unsuccessful efforts at clearing the road, we gave up and headed east toward Sarajevo, in the vain hope of finding an open pass over the mountains.

For Americans in a hurry, the frequent halts while the Bosnians leisurely unsnarled traffic were especially trying. Like the bus driver, many Bosnian drivers seemed content to sit and wait rather than get out and push their cars out of ditches.

To move our little convoy, photographer Cole finally resorted to pleading with drivers in sign language to move their vehicles. Then she started pushing on the cars single-handedly until embarrassed Bosnian men came forward to help. After much effort, the entire line of cars began to move, only to become entangled in yet another mess a few miles down the road.

In traveling to Bosnia, I had weighed the dangers of land mines, snipers, armed bandits and moujahedeen fighters. But driving in the night over a high mountain pass on a snow-covered dirt road, I kept thinking of the three U.S. envoys who died earlier this year when their car skidded off a narrow mountain highway.

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