One week in Sarajevo

The shell-pocked city is back in the frontline after last month's Nato air strikes. Emma Daly on a reporter's life under siege
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The Independent Online
4 June - It is now nine days since the Bosnian Serbs cut water and electricity to the city, after the Nato air strikes, and no one expects them to relent any time soon: the gas was turned off more than a month ago. The minimal power and water supplies under government control are channelled to a different area each day.

There is no United Nations news briefing today - a good thing as most of the journalists and both spokesmen are a little fragile after a CBS party in the Holiday Inn. As the news story expands so does the number of journalists; and as the stress levels rise, so does press hospitality. The tougher it gets, the better the parties.

I arrived home at 3.30am and was instantly sobered by the sound of a tap dripping - water, at last. We filled lots of jerry cans, although it is only "technical" water - not for drinking, despite the over-powering stench of chlorine.

By morning the source was dry, but we are about to get the wood-stove working in the court-yard, thanks to Joel's paranoia: he bought a whole forest-worth of wood in the spring, when there was a constant supply of electricity and gas, so we can cook (or rather the landlord's aunt and mother, Selma and Nesiha, can cook for us - and for their families) again. Joel Brand, my flatmate, who works for Newsweek, The Times, The Washington Post and anyone else who will pay, is very proud of our new, improved door-bell - a beer can filled with nails attached to a string across the courtyard - until Selma's daughter, Lejla, sees it. "Why don't you just buy a battery-powered bell?" she asks, puzzled.

Hellish scenes from Butmir, where four people were killed and five wounded by a shell; it lies on the other side of the airport so we heard nothing. But the television pictures were the usual bloody mess.

"Have you heard? AFP got hit on Igman - but they're OK," said a friend. The Agence France Presse armoured Land Rover was driving along the muddy track into Sarajevo when it was struck by a 40mm cannon round and crashed. fortunately they turned left - into the mountain - instead of right - off the precipice.

The injuries were broken bones and minor head injuries, so Christian, who had just arrived in Sarajevo for a three-month stint, Eric, the photographer, and a journalist from L'Express magazine are to be evacuated tomorrow by the UN.

I hate driving over Igman now: you reach the last couple of kilometres (the really dangerous section), then fasten your mental seat-belt, stop talking, and career down the twisting track as fast as possible, hoping that the Serb gunners are hungover or on a slivovic break. Fortunately the Land Rovers are so noisy you can't hear the shooting anyway.

The press corps is buzzing with rumours that the new, robust United Nations (at least that part of it led by Britain's Lieutenant-General Rupert Smith, the commander in Bosnia) plans to secure the Igman route - that is shoot back at the Serbs in Ilidza (a western suburb) who are hitting the road.

Everyone hopes this is true - at least that way we might get out more often - but there's a lot of scepticism. Sarajevans simply laugh at suggestions that the West, annoyed by Serb hostage-taking, might get tough. It's known here as the UN Self-Protection Force.

I have dinner at the Holiday Inn - I never thought I would eat there out of choice, especially as I have to drive in without using head-lights and I have trouble doing that in daylight. But with practically no electricity in town the choice of restaurants is limited and the attractions of staying in - bread and cheese by candle-light - are dim. In any case, the worse the day, the more I feel like going out in the evening, to escape the telephone and the gloom. The lights are on at home, at least for 12 hours, so we recharge the car batteries that power the battery chargers that run our computers.

The sniping is getting worse again, especially around the presidency/Skenderija intersection: the Serbs fire north at the junction, which is blocked by containers, and east along the road, so it's a particularly dodgy spot. Not so bad in the car - a soft (ie not armoured) blue Golf - but grim for pedestrians, who hang around behind the containers for a few minutes steeling themselves to make the 20-yard dash. It's obscene to see people with their faces all screwed up in terror, just because they have to cross the road. As usual there is a pack of television cameras and photographers hanging around - some Sarajevans criticise them as vultures, but they have saved people by using their armoured cars as shields.

And if they didn't shoot the pictures, no one would know - though as Christiane Amanpour, the CNN correspondent, says later, that argument doesn't work any more in Sarajevo, where people are painfully aware that media coverage hasn't made much difference.

I meet Christiane, the BBC's Martin Bell and Kurt Schork of Reuters for dinner with General Smith - lots of wine, delicious pudding and 35 seconds to eat each course because the waiter seems to be in a hurry. We only just slipped under the wire: they start eating rations tomorrow. The general and his spokesman, Gary Coward, tease Martin about past encounters: they were young soldiers back then, but he was already a BBC star. Everyone is exhausted so we break up before the 11pm curfew.

A couple of weeks ago Kurt and I attacked Joel on the subject of his career, and the ambush has paid off - sort of. Tonight he made the decision he has been struggling with for weeks: to take a television job and try to write his book (how I dropped out of college in California, stopped surfing, and moved to Sarajevo - working title: Do you think they're shooting at us?

Meco (pronounced Metso) was supposed to come to lunch today but he got caught out when the fighting began and phoned to say he was stuck in some building down town (he finally made it back to the office and then left a couple of seconds before it was hit by a shell).

He's the kind of person who makes Sarajevo fun in spite of everything - funny, intelligent, tolerant and determined to stay here and finish his architectural training in spite of pleas by foreign friends to leave. He is our champion in the battle with Bosnian bureaucracy, wheedling, hustling and arguing for our international phone lines, car documents (the police are very strict about that, and have nothing better to do than haul us over for a paper check at least once a day) and all the rest.

There is a lot of noise today - our whole neighbourhood seems to be one big mortar position - but most of it is outgoing. The Serbs lob a few shells back here but they are concentrating on the Bosnian army. We live near the Old Town, on a hill north of the river (directions: drive west along Marshal Tito Street, turn right at the Cafe Elvis, third on the left), where the streets are narrow and potholed and you can live with the illusion of safety. We have a good view, above the neighbouring roofs, of Debelo Brdo, a sheer green hill-side, dotted with rocks and lined with trenches, the scene of much of the recent fighting. The first week we sat and watched the impacts - a flash of light and a cloud of smoke - but it got boring after a while.

Almost all the artillery is directed at the front line but it is still unnerving to be out and about during a battle. Three people have been killed today, and 19 wounded.

Still, it is nothing like the first two years of the war. Selma's husband died at home when a shell crashed into their courtyard, which adjoins ours, and she cries when the fighting starts, terrified that Lejla will not come home. It is different for us: it's a job. I've been frightened - though I don't have to go close up, like the photographers and cameramen -but people who have endured for three years have no nerves left; they just can't stand the tension.

Men and women withdraw or go crazy, shielded, if they are lucky, by a partner who carries on regardless. I spent a depressing afternoon with Harriet Martin of the Financial Times and Maureen Lyons, an Englishwoman married to a Bosnian who works for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, visiting a few of those worst-off in the city.

I still don't know how people survive. Even those with families and some money are reduced to an animal state: their only concerns to find food, water and shelter. But people who have no one, who are old or sick, just cling to a hideous half-life, stuck in a smelly shared room in a crumbling institution with nothing, surrounded by old newspapers and empty aid boxes for fuel.

And there is so little anyone can do - providing food is a tough enough job; there is no comfort or companionship to spare. I will bring some sugar and jam some time, if I remember and I'm not too busy, and they will be horrifyingly grateful for a tiny gesture that will assuage my conscience. There is always a horrible tension between the way we live and the way they live. But while we're here we have to work and eat and telephone and drive, so we help the people we know and like and leave the rest to rot.

So of course, after a day spent listening to stories of want, I eat pepper steak at Club Yez because it's Julian (Guardian) Borger's birthday and the remains of lunch were eaten by friends who dropped by with flour and sugar which we can pass on to the old men.

A couple of shells land nearby as we're about to leave and it's after curfew, but travelling in a white armoured Land Rover sets us apart, so we're OK.

Water day in more ways than one: a hot bath courtesy of the BBC. They live in one of the few buildings with water and electricity simultaneously, and are generous with their spare bathroom and the enormous element that can heat a bath in a couple of hours.

Dissipated most of the bath effects carrying 140 litres of water from the car to the house and upstairs - Joel has pulled a muscle in his back, so has a legitimate reason to order me about.

He's planning to leave on Sunday - I will miss him terribly but it's the right decision. He's only 25 and he's lived here more or less full- time since the autumn of 1992. The experience means, however, that he is constantly badgering me to stock up on food, fuel, water and so on, so I am grudgingly grateful even though curse him for being a control freak. So we have crates of beer and Coke in the larder - a downstairs room, dark and dank - cases of wine (he doesn't drink but there's me to think about), huge slabs of Croatian Edam and assorted dried goods, and, locked in a storage room, about 500 litres of diesel for the car and petrol for the generator. We haven't cranked up the genny, though, because it is too much trouble for the dubious pleasure of watching Sky News - though I might conceivably do it for MTV, CNN and the Cartoon Channel.

We're having a small party this evening for Nic Robertson, a CNN producer, who is 33 today. We debate whether to switch on the generator and opt instead for candles on the terrace and a battery-operated Discman. CNN has ordered pizzas and we stay outside because the evening is warm and quiet and anyway the walls protect us (we hope) from any action. Although Amela, the BBC translator, now tells me that a house in our street was hit by a shell this week (news to me, I must have been asleep) and that the first shells of the war landed in this area. I'm not sure I needed to know that.

While I was writing in the sitting-room, which overlooks a small white stone mosque, the minaret holed but still standing, the grave-yard overgrown, I heard a boy singing in Arabic. A vague buzz of conversation from the terrace downstairs, a few distant shots, and this clear, pure voice, very firm.

The mosque itself is normally deserted except for Friday prayers, but the neighbours fetch water from the well (only five litres a time) in the garden. Everybody in the street knows everybody else, so they ask Lejla about us - most of them think we're crazy, but they say hello when we see them.

The police are outside the front door when the party breaks up at 12.15am, ready to bust curfew-breakers, but they are mollified (or disappointed) to find everyone has a UN press card and is therefore sort of allowed out. Not as bad as the Associated Press party last week, when the Bosnian army issued two ultimatums: turn the music down and get the body off the street - a journo living down to stereotype, drunk in the gutter.

Driving to the daily briefing is terrifying, not because of the shooting but because of the suicidal pedestrians, erratic cyclists and total absence of brake lights on half the cars in the city.

The one-way system along Titova, restored in 1994, is pretty much gone again, despite the best efforts of the traffic cops, because the west- east drag is too exposed.

At Skenderija junction I turn on to the back road, to avoid Sniper Alley, along with all the other traffic, which includes people pushing wheelbarrows filled with water cans or, bizarrely, straw.

Time to pay the phone bill - not that there are any bills. We just phone the post office to ask for the balance (plus 5DM today, that's 1.5 minutes to London) and hand over large sums of cash. Every now and then a man comes to the door with the bill for the line rental - 100 Bosnian dinars, or 1DM.

Then home for a particularly unpleasant interlude, the result of a lavatory that no longer flushes. And I thought hand-washing jeans was the worst thing about not having running water.

When Joel goes on Sunday he intends to go for good. Nobody believes it when I pass on the news, but he seems determined to leave. We would have thrown a party but CBS got in first, so we are planning a small dinner tomorrow night, with Kurt, Nic, Christiane, and Alex Stiglmeyer, the Time stringer. Alex shares a flat with Joel in Zagreb so we share a strange bond of sisterhood, based on being mean to him because he bosses us about.

It will be a different place without him, though he will be back occasionally in his new role as TV star, but his departure is appropriate: every Bosnian friend he had but Meco has left over the past three years.Those who remain do so out of pride, or patriotism, or spite; for the sake of family and friends or careers.

Joel really picked the right day to leave. The news today - that the UN here has been ordered to return to the status quo ante bellum - marks a new low for the peace-keeping mission. Gen Smith has effectively been ordered to retreat to the situation which caused this crisis - while almost 100 men are still held hostage by the Serbs.

It is clear that if Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary-General, has his way, there will be no regular aid convoys; no enforcement of the weapons exclusion zones around Sarajevo and Gorazde and no attempt made to protect the alleged "safe areas". Radovan Karadzic must pray for the continued good health of the Secretary-General every night.

Mr Boutros-Ghali seems to forget, however, the existence of the Bosnian army and, I think, the sentiments of most Bosnians who remain. We in the West tend to think war is the worst thing that can possibly happen and that therefore we should seek peace at any price. I don't think most people here, Sarajevans and refugees, feel that.

Many are seriously depressed, frequently terrified and constantly exhausted by the war. But they are not ready to surrender - however much the UN would like them to.