Diary

Letters are precious in Sarajevo, written on scraps with hoarded biros, on Red Cross message forms, on the back of earlier missives: every visitor to and from the city bears post between friends and families divided by war. My deliveries this time came from a couple of people I know in London - twentysomething media types from West Hampstead and Shepherds Bush, Bosnian refugees whose parents live on the front line.

Amra's family home is a flat in Dobrinja, the Sarajevan suburb that was built as the 1984 Winter Olympic village; her mother offers strong coffee in pretty china cups and pastries made with humanitarian flour. The household appliances are long gone, sold or stolen or scrapped; she misses the microwave and now cooks on wood that costs 10 German marks (pounds 4.70) a day. It is a familiar, comfortable middle-class flat, the sofas upholstered in the Bosnian equivalent of chintz, the cabinets filled with crystal glasses and family china. The loud crack of sniper fire sounds a slow beat in the background. Amra's father, who speaks English, is on front-line duty, so we chat to her mother in fractured Serbo-Croat about life, the war, how expensive food is, how frightening Dobrinja can be. She lived like we do before the war: cars, washing-machines, holidays, but is now a world apart from Amra. She wants it to end, but she will not leave Sarajevo, it is her home, so she hands over a letter for her children abroad and wishes us luck.

Some things do change: Sarajevo has a new brand of cigarettes, a big event in a city where smoking is compulsory. The old stalwarts, Drina (disgusting), have been joined by Bosnae (better). Drina used to come wrapped in packages made of pages torn from dictionaries and other unwanted books - there was a time when every smoker could look up the Polish equivalent of a Serbo-Croat word.

And the pizza delivery business is back on track following the recent decrease in shelling around the Old Town, though all orders must be out by 8pm so staff can be home before "police hour" - the 9pm curfew. "Hole in the Wall" pizzas come in two varieties, vegetarian (tomato, cheese and mushroom) or meat (ditto, plus dodgy-looking ham), dispensed from a shack with a large oven, a counter and a slit in the window.

The peace-keepers, bereft of a steady supply of decent food, have taken to shopping there in large numbers. Two French soldiers appear every afternoon in a VBL - a small, Mad Max-type armoured vehicle - to collect 58 pizzas for supper for a company based at Sarajevo airport. "It's better than eating rations," said one, "everyone is doing it - all the French soldiers, anyway." His comrade nodded gloomily, "All our supplies are finished, so we buy these and heat them up in a microwave."

Local children seem to share the squaddies' contempt for French cooking, Sarajevo-style. "The dogs like it," said 12-year-old Ajsela, giggling and pointing at the pail of beans and broccoli her friend Sedzida, 11, had received at a feeding centre run by French soldiers. They hang around hoping for sweets, but don't get lucky often.

The children like to play "The Humanitarian Aid Game", a Sarajevan version of the dolls' tea party. They fill empty tins with mud, or ration boxes with grass and twigs, or pile up stones for beans and distribute them to their friends. "One is in charge of distributing humanitarian aid and the others come and collect it, but they have to bring the stuff back so they can play again," said Sedzida, a tiny red-head with porcelain features.

It's not that realistic, though - the children always have stuff to dispense, unlike the UN. "We make the humanitarian aid, the boys just come and get it," said Shejla. Men, eh, always needing to be looked after.

Another game played in my neighbourhood is "The Sniper, the Screaming Victim, the Ambulanceman and the Medicine Man". Older boys deploy useful delinquent tendencies to steal power from the few constant sources of electricity (police stations, hospitals and the like). It's a risky game: you have to wire up a cable, string it through trees, across streets and over roofs into your house. But it's worth it for light and heat.

Pure ingenuity has kept the city going through three years of siege, and the government knows it must reverse, or at least staunch, the brain drain if Bosnia is to have any future. One friend of mine has stayed, despite pleas from her sister, who lives abroad, on the grounds that she'd rather be a doctor in Sarajevo than a waitress in Toronto, but she's in a minority. The Minister of Culture issued an appeal last week to young, well-educated refugees to come home.

But after a lull, and even the return of some early refugees, the exodus seems to have started again. In May, the Bosnian Serbs cut gas, water and electricity to the city and renewed artillery attacks: for many it was the last straw and anecdotal evidence suggests they are packing up and heading out.

One friend has just left, with great sadness, because his young children have no chance of a normal life here. Actually, he doesn't think we have, either, though he knows we have the option of leaving.

Recently, a friend showed up to repay a favour with a bunch of roses and a hand-grenade for my flat-mate. "No woman should be without one," he said. As a Sarajevo accessory, I prefer the lighter handed out by the largest undertaker in the city with the logo: "Pokop Sarajevo. Don't Rush."

"A lot of my friends who used to play here are now buried here," mused Aida, who is still at university, as we wandered through the Martyrs' Cemetery in the Old Town. A riot of wild flowers and cultivated blooms, rose bushes, planted on graves carpet the former park. Aida pointed across the empty stone pool, where her father swam as a boy, to the grave of a friend. "We grew up together," she said. Heavy machine-gun fire ripped across the hills nearby, sending us scurrying for cover. "He was killed on the front line; the mortar hit him directly, they couldn't find all the pieces of his body."

The war graves are jammed together, most bearing wooden markers with a name and two dates, always ending in 93, 94 or 95. "There were a lot of trees here, it was really a beautiful park," Aida said. "Here we came to smoke our first cigarettes, to run away from our parents." Now she spends as much time with her family as she can, but always indoors, never in the wilderness of her garden: it's too dangerous.

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