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IT IS EASY to be deceived by a fake glow, when we look at old photographs. We see the smiles, and the idyllic scenes; and we think that life must have been gentler, then. Some-times, the first impression is hideously misleading. One of the most striking photographs taken during Stalin's purges in the Thirties is a picture of a Leningrad cafe on a summer's day - laughing, carefree, happy faces, which give no hint of the mass murder that marked the society of that time.

Sometimes, though, old photographs tell unexpected truths. And in these postcards from Bosnia from the 1880s, there are no hidden secrets; the idyll they depict was real. They belonged to the grandmother of Otmar Laho-dynsky, a journalist with the Viennese daily Die Presse; her father, Myron von Zarzycki-Nowina, was the Austro-Hungarian imperial commissioner for Sarajevo. They give a hint of an era which has been violently destroyed.

A visitor to Bosnia at the turn of the century noted the peculiarity of this little corner of the Balkans: "Members of different religious faiths show mutual toleration; justice is awarded to every citizen, regardless of his religion or social position." The First World War brought to an end the remarkably enlightened Austro-Hungarian administration of the period, but the spirit of tolerance survived - until a few years ago.

At the beginning of the century, Ilidza (above, near right) was a fashionable spa just outside Sarajevo. As the war began, almost four years ago, the Serbs seized Ilidza, now a suburb of Sarajevo. Today, it forms the front line in an officially divided country. It is easy to be seduced by the siren voices - from the Western politicians and the local nationalists alike - telling us that this was a people which could never live together: "buried ethnic hatreds", to use the familiar phrase. In reality, Sarajevo remained a mixed city, for as long as it was able to: indeed, Bosnian independence was never a dream, for its own sake. Independence was, in effect, forced on Bosnia, by nationalists elsewhere. Bosnia was probably the only corner of Yugoslavia which felt comfortable in Tito's old federation. Only in Bosnia could you still see pictures of Tito, even after the war had begun: in Serbia, he was reviled as a Croat; in Croatia, he was reviled as the man who had created the multi-ethnic Yugoslav federation. In Bosnia, he was seen as the man who kept the peace.

The mosques which dot the skyline of Sarajevo on the old postcards had nothing to do with a dominant Islam. Rather, the mosques - mostly destroyed, in the past three years - represented a sense of community. Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims alike recognised and respected each other's festivals. In the Bosnian town of Mostar, too, co-existence between Croats and Muslims used to be the key. The elegant bridge over the Neretva survived for centuries, before the Croats finally destroyed it in 1993.

Sometimes, when one looks back at old postcards, they seem charming but largely irrelevant. We look back at pictures from the Victorian era, and imagine how life might have been. But Sarajevo really was a pleasantly sleepy city which had more in common with the 19th century than the approaching 21st.

Now, Sarajevo and all Bosnia have been hideously catapulted into the modern age. The peaceful scenes in these postcards have vanished definitively - not in the past 90 years, but in the last four. The new destruction and division of Bosnia means that a real peace will be difficult to achieve. Many Bosnians believe that this is a poisoned peace - history suggests that a country divided by force merely provides the basis for further conflict in the future. Now, these postcards are indeed from another age. !