A New Killer Now Stalks Sarajevans--Pirated Gas : Balkans: Desperate for heat, many tap into main fuel lines. Explosions are killing more than enemy fire.
Carrying a tiny birthday candle for light, 93-year-old Sevda Haseta entered her downtown apartment on a frigid morning the other day, unaware that a makeshift utility system had filled the building with gas.
The huge explosion that followed set the great-grandmother on fire, hurled her through the air and knocked walls and roof to the ground.
“We are lucky she is alive,” Safija Boric, Haseta’s granddaughter, said from the woman’s hospital bedside. “We saved some carpet and blankets, but the apartment is destroyed.”
The harshest days of winter are gripping this war-wasted capital, and its entrapped residents are cold. Having denuded most of this city’s once-lovely parks in the hunt for firewood, and with rationed electricity only now starting to be restored to some homes, tens of thousands of Sarajevans have turned to jury-rigged gas installations for heat.
But pirating gas can be dangerous. Explosions caused by precarious in-home connections have become common. In fact, with enemy Bosnian Serb snipers who lurk in the surrounding hillsides momentarily quieted by a cease-fire, more people are getting killed in Sarajevo this winter by gas explosions than by bullets and mortars, according to U.N. and hospital officials.
When Bosnian Serb rebels laid siege to Sarajevo three years ago, they cut off food, fuel and most supplies into the Muslim-controlled city as part of a campaign to starve and subjugate its residents.
The United Nations is allowed to bring in humanitarian aid, but the definition of “humanitarian aid” always seems subject to the whim of the Bosnian Serbs.
This winter, the Serbs have refused to give clearance to firewood, claiming that it could have a military use.
“They (the Serbs) are just trying to make sure people in Sarajevo are cold and miserable--I see no other reason for it,” said Kris Janowski, a frustrated official with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which is trying to alleviate the suffering of Bosnia’s war victims.
And with electricity rationed, gas has become practically the only source of heat. Yet there is not enough of it to meet the growing demand. U.N. engineers estimate that gas consumption has increased fourfold since the beginning of the war--doubling in just the last year--even though the population has shrunk through killings and flight.
The gas is piped from Russia on a long route that crosses through parts of Croatia and Serbia. Each population taps into the supply, with Sarajevo the last stop on the route. As recently as September, U.N. officials say, Serbs were sabotaging the gas supply.
But the officials claim that this is no longer the case.
Instead, the shortage problems come from supply--Bosnia has not paid some of its bills to Russia--and demand.
These days, about 65,000 Sarajevo households consume gas, up from 15,000 before the war. That probably represents most of the city’s 380,000 people. As many as 45,000 of those households have pirated, jury-rigged connections. Residents tap into the regular gas main, then put together a contraption of rubber pipes and makeshift valves to run gas to a small stove that they light for heat.
Sarajevans use this system to warm a single room in their apartments, closing off the rest against the subzero air that seeps through bomb-shattered windows. In that room, entire families often huddle.
“I’ve been in residences where there are all manner of homemade pipes with all kinds of holes and with no manner of controlling the pressure,” said U.N. engineer Maj. Martin Morris, who is part of a team assigned to restore reliable energy supplies. “And, I’ll be honest, it’s damn dangerous.”
No one has to tell that to Bahrija Balicevac. She smelled a gas leak and thought she had opened enough windows to clear the fumes. But when she went to light the stove, her house exploded.
“What money I have I spend on food, so I could not buy the regular pipes,” the 37-year-old mother of three said from her bed in the burn unit at the state-run Kosevo Hospital. Her hands and face were blistered, her eyebrows were missing and her hair was chopped off by fire.
“Since we don’t have money, we improvise. The problem is you go 12 hours without gas and then you are not sure when it will come on. It may not come on at the proper time, and when it does, the pressure is very high. It is very dangerous.”
Many Sarajevans, for whom betrayal and tragedy are a way of life, suspect that the problems with the gas are part of the war against them.
“We never used to have these kinds of explosions before,” Balicevac said. “Maybe the Serbs are turning the gas off and on so the people will be killed. They are the ones who control it.”
Boric, Haseta’s granddaughter, harbored similar suspicions: “We don’t have the shelling now, but maybe somebody is doing this on purpose.”
No one is keeping statistics on the deaths caused by gas explosions.
Most direct shelling of this encircled capital was halted last year, and a cease-fire agreement that took effect Jan. 1 ushered in a period of relative calm for Sarajevo, if not for other parts of Bosnia. Burns from home-heating systems gone awry, however, have accounted for a number of deaths.
In the first three weeks of this month, six people died from burns in the Kosevo Hospital alone, said Dr. Mirza Mujadzic. He said burn patients run a high risk of death because the specialized care they need--including skin creams and sterile conditions--is not available in a hospital where even bandages are scarce.
“Before the war, we sent all the difficult burn cases to Slovenia,” said Mujadzic, a plastic surgery specialist. “We only treated light cases here. Now we are receiving 10 times the number of burn patients that we did before, and the mortality rate is high. The winter is very strong, and people have no energy sources. Before the war, maybe 10% of the people had gas. Now everyone has it, and mostly with improvised connections.”
Moreover, where electricity has been restored, it is rationed. Households are allowed to consume 3.3 kilowatts a day.
Nadja Cica keeps on hand an old newspaper clipping that lists energy consumption, by kilowatts per minute or hour, of every conceivable household appliance.
“Yesterday I baked bread; that used about two kilowatts. Today we used the washing machine, but that also used about two kilowatts so we didn’t run it very long,” said Cica, standing in an apartment living room warmed by a jury-rigged gas hookup. “Before, we did not have to count kilowatts. But now we have to read the meter each day, and you have to know exactly how much each appliance uses.”
The United Nations, working with the Sarajevo Gas Co., has launched a program to detect and normalize pirated gas connections. But that will take time, officials say, because dangerous, ad-hoc usage is so widespread.
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