Briton's suicide mars Bosnia celebrations

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The Independent Online

Christmas, which has brought the first hopes for peace to Bosnia, began on a sombre note for British troops in Sarajevo with the news that a comrade had apparently committed suicide on Christmas Eve. But for most it was a joyous event. Thousands packed the Catholic cathedral for Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, where Sarajevo's Cardinal, Vinko Puljic, his voice breaking, told worshippers: "The war is over. Let there be peace."

For the first Christmas in four years, the city resounded to music and laughter rather than the sounds of war. "It's the first time since the war began that there is no shooting at Christmas," Edi Hrnjic, a young Muslim, said as he loitered on the Cathedral steps with a friend. "I'm hoping it's the first Christmas in peace-time," Elvina Dzafic, a Muslim woman, said. "It's much better than last year, because it's calm, there is no shooting, and we have everything we need on the table."

Proof of the changes came as we walked across Vrbanja bridge, probably the single most dangerous place in the city, to visit French troops celebrating Mass.

It was here that Suada Dilberovic, a student attending a peace demonstration on 5 April 1992, was killed by a sniper - the first victim of the war in Sarajevo.

The latest to die was Signalman Mark Maxwell, 22, of 7 Signal Regiment, apparently by his own hand. He was found in his room at a Nato base in the city with a gunshot wound to the head. "It appears there was no one else involved," Colonel Mark Rayner, spokesman for Nato's Implementation Force (I-For), told reporters. Maxwell's commanding officer, Major Julian Turner, said his death had come as a great shock to his comrades. "He was always a happy lad, he made other people smile. That's why his death was so unexpected."

"I don't know why - he was quite a pal," Signalman Glen MacDonald said as he queued for lunch at the battered Nato base in Zetra Olympic stadium after a Christmas service. The cooks, draped in streamers and red caps, did their best to keep it festive, doling out turkey and demanding kisses from the few women in the area.

The officers, as tradition dictates, awoke the men yesterday morning with cups of tea laced with rum, and helped to serve lunch, accompanied by Spanish champagne. Brigadier Tony Raper, who has troops dotted around Sarajevo - including 19 unfortunates stuck on top of Mount Bjelasnica, the Olympic ski mountain where the temperature was minus 36C - was doing the rounds yesterday. "I go and chat to the men, dish them out some booze, make sure they're happy," he said.

The Americans were also celebrating, with iced tea and lemonade: the US Army, unlike its Nato allies, is dry on operations. "I hope the peace stays," said Warrant Officer Terry Speak, who had delivered Christmas lunches to the Bjelasnica troops, though they had to walk down the mountain to collect it. "It was quite strange driving through Sarajevo last night seeing so many people walking around, holding hands, bars and cafes full."

The 10pm curfew was lifted for the holidays, and the streets were jammed on Christmas Eve with Sarajevans celebrating. Thousands, many of them Muslims or Serbs - the latter also celebrate Orthodox Christmas next month - turned out for Midnight Mass at the Catholic cathedral, a lively social event uniting the city and its longing for a return to real life. "I have good news for you today. A child is born to us: peace," the Cardinal said in a sermon that provoked lengthy applause from the congregation. "Hope comes with this Christmas."

Three women gathered outside for a cigarette after the service agreed. "Hope is the most important thing," said Jovanka Vilic, a Serb married to a Croat. "I would rather go without water during the day or bread if only we could have peace."