Team spirit helps Olympic village to survive siege: Marcus Tanner visits the Sarajevo suburb where good order and horticulture make life possible under the very muzzles of the Serbian guns

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The Independent Online
'MUST we play again?' groaned 18- year-old Dzenis, gingerly fingering his guitar. 'We already had Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair here. And what was that other magazine? The Face.'

The Black Cross of Destiny were formed in May and already have a small international following, famous because of where they live.

They are a rock group in Dobrinja, the front line beyond all front lines in Sarajevo, a criss-cross of streets and tower blocks ringed on three and a half sides by the Serbs, hanging by a thread to the rest of Sarajevo along an alley littered with cars that never made it.

In Dobrinja the Serbs look right down most of the straight boulevards, and 13 tiny new cemeteries are the result. Even Sarajevans fear to go there. The palm of a driver had to be crossed with marks before he would hurtle down a road turned into a tunnel by 5ft walls of sandbags on either side.

Dobrinja should have fallen long ago but did not. 'We had 20 rifles when the siege started,' recalled Dr Youssef Hajir, head of Dobrinja hospital. Right alongside Sarajevo airport, the middle-class suburb built for the Winter Olympics of 1984 would be a valuable prize for the Serbs.

For two months last year Dobrinja was sealed off. Grim stories emerged from amateur radio operators. 'People were eating pigeons and grass,' Dr Hajir said. 'But we got organised.'

Eighteen months on, the wrecked village resembles a scene from a Terminator film. Slimmed-down Arnold Schwarzeneggers in white Levi T-shirts lurk in an underground car park with machine-guns, checking the cars going into Dobrinja. Then it is a short spurt over a sandbagged- lined bridge, and in.

'You are permitted to walk only in Dobrinja Two,' an unsmiling official said. Control of life down to minute details is seen as the key to the town's survival. The 35,000 inhabitants live in a kind of nightmarish kibbutz, hoeing their plots and dodging the Serbian snipers who prowl yards away in the bushes. The main street is called Death Alley by the locals.

No foreigner in Dobrinja can walk around without a minder, in my case Shekki, a 19-year-old who has been in the Bosnian army since he was 17. Shekki's job was to make sure I did not stray into areas under army control, which is nearly everywhere.

The town consists of sectors. Dobrinja Four is Serb-held. One and Three are Bosnian-held but forbidden; so was taking pictures, seeing a communal canteen and visiting the office of Caritas, the Catholic charity. Weirdly, the press centre was also out of bounds.

While mounds of rubbish pile up in Sarajevo and the streets fall prey to gang rule, Dobrinja is spotless and orderly. No children roam in the streets. They are all in schools.

'Life is better here than in Sarajevo - everything is so organised,' said Meliha, a 42-year-old refugee, watering her plot of potatoes, tomatoes and parsley. When I asked about the level of fighting in the area, Shekki intervened. No unauthorised talk on military subjects.

'We expect to harvest 190 tonnes of vegetables this year,' said the civil defence chief of Dobrinja Two, Ismet Kumalic, pointing to knee- high plots of maize growing between the blocks of flats. While Sarajevo has sunk into lethargic dependence on UN aid, every square inch of Dobrinja has been dug up.

No one says it, but Dobrinja has survived because it is middle- class. 'We had a lot of young professionals who were used to taking decisions,' said Mr Kumalic. Twenty-four university lecturers were on hand to take over the schools. These former yuppies have opened up communal kitchens, schools, a library, a music school and a newspaper.

A gasping woman is rushed into Dobrinja hospital. Blood oozes from a bullet-sized scarlet hole in her arm. An average day brings 15 patients with sniper wounds. Dr Hajir, a Palestinian, built up the hospital in a disused warehouse. Cut off in Dobrinja when Serbs surrounded the suburb last year, he has not left or had a day off. 'People were desperate for help so I opened up a surgery, although we had no instruments,' he said. 'Our first success was finding a few dental instruments and some bandages in a box. I first operated on six people by candle light.'

A year on there are 14 specialists and flashing computers. Dr Hajir could get out of Dobrinja, but will not. 'I do not feel Bosnian, but this is my way of saying thank you to these people,' he said. 'These people are very good, all of them.'

By bizarre coincidence, Dr Hajir knows the tormentor of Dobrinja, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. They studied medicine together in Sarajevo in the 1960s. He was strangely reluctant to condemn his old colleague. 'Karadzic lost his orientation. He was not bad when I knew him. Maybe becoming good friends with President Milosevic of Serbia changed him.'

Outside the hospital the Black Cross of Destiny are finally ready to perform. Dzenis hobbles on crutches. A sniper got him last month. Against a wall of sandbags, the band strums without backing, and four reedy teenage voices break into House of the Rising Sun. The lyrics contrast surreally with Dobrinja's ravaged skyline of ruined and burnt-out tower blocks. 'Frankly, our destiny is completely black as well,' said Dzenis, suddenly reflective.

(Map omitted)

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