Sarajevo Diary

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The Independent Online
They said it could not, would not work. But the Western politicians who refused for so long to send any real armies into Bosnia should visit Sarajevo to see how wrong they were. The city has changed radically with the arrival of I-For, Nato's peace implementation force. Its limits have dissolved (at least for foreigners) and its front-line neighbourhoods exposed to the light of semi-normal life.

We have begun to venture to places off-limits to all but front-line troops or the suicidal - Vrbanja bridge, where the bodies of Sarajevo's Romeo and Juliet (Serb boy, Muslim girl) lay for days, guarded in death by the sniper fire that killed them. Or the outskirts of Dobrinja, where the enemies were separated only by a road.

But best of all for those of us infuriated, harassed, robbed and turned back on countless occasions, I-For has bulldozed the checkpoints in and around the city. It is wondrous to behold the forlorn expressions of our tormentors, the checkpoint guards who stand helplessly to one side as cars sail by. Even the Bosnian truck drivers who needed a UN escort to drive through the Serb-held suburb of Ilidza are breezing through - though they lurk behind the lines until they spot an I-For vehicle passing, then nip in behind.

Most locals - even those carrying UN press cards - are still too frightened to use the roads. It is likely to be some time before they are willing, as urged by the Nato commander in Bosnia, Lt-Gen Sir Michael Walker, to develop a "spirit of adventure" and drive through enemy territory.

And now the cloud of fear has settled across the front line, where rebel Serbs who lost the battle to divide Sarajevo are waiting, miserable and confused, for guidance: should they stay, and risk mortal revenge or perhaps just the poverty of a second-class existence, or go to the unknown, to the life of a refugee? The Bosnian government, which will take control of Serb-held areas next year, has called on Serbs to stay and offered lukewarm assurance of safety to all but "war criminals" - though how the average man is to calculate whether his wartime actions were criminal or not is left unanswered. The tables have turned.

The city is gradually awakening to the possibility of peace and the freedom to move past the ring of steel that encircled it for so long. It is glorious to see lights across the valley at night instead of blackness, to see bars and cafes and streets filled with people strolling easily instead of lurking at sniper corners waiting for the moment to dash across.

Still, there are those wartime problems to resolve first: my friend Aida, for example, is wondering how to rid her car of the odour of morgue in summer before her five-year-old son and mother return from exile in Germany. A man wounded in October died in her car as he was being evacuated and she cannot wash out the blood.

"I'm trying to make a home for Igor, but more than that, I'm trying to justify staying here to my mother. She has to be impressed when she gets here and the smell of a dead man in my car is not going to help." It may sound callous, but after four years filled with such scenes of horror, Aida herself was not much bothered by the smell.

She is also clearing her flat, moving out the refugees. "There was a 15-year-old boy shot in the head by a sniper," Aida recalled. "The bullet went straight in his forehead, through his brain and lodged at the back. We thought he would die. But after 10 days in hospital he said his first sentence, `I want tea', and his mother fainted. So the family came to stay for six months. Function after function came back - the last was sight. I came in one day with a banana and a Coca-Cola for him, which was something extraordinary then, and he had never seen me, because I did not know the family before he was wounded. He opened his eyes and said: `Oh, you must be Aida, you have glasses.' And there was a crash from the kitchen - his mother had fainted again."

A photo from summer 1992 shows Aida wearing pink dungarees and a white T-shirt, a camouflaged flak jacket over her shoulders, a helmet in one hand and an anxious expression. She is unrecognisable as the sassy, no- nonsense reporter I know. She used to come to work in high heels and tight skirts - "until I broke all my heels in trenches and was reduced to sneakers".

Like most Sarajevans, she was convinced the war was a temporary aberration. "I thought this would only last two or three weeks because the Americans would come in - can you imagine?" She shrieked with laughter. "1992 - how stupid I was. But, hey, it turned out the way I said - just four years late." She paused. "It's funny now, but then I just cried."

The Americans have indeed landed. Residents were bemused to see that US troops leaving their base to walk up the road for Christmas lunch adopted combat positions - but with the memory of the Beirut suicide bombing, security is taken seriously. Troops offered reporters the chance of three- day patrols with the soldiers, a practice gloriously known as "embedded media". Sadly for reporters with a sense of adventure, the patrols were limited to ... the air base.

Sarajevans are examining the past and pondering how to rebuild the future; some are coming home, trying to stitch together marriages broken by years of war and exile, to reconcile the needs of parents and children who have changed so since the spring of 1992. There is at last a sense of hope, a growing belief that the war really is over, that life can go on - and with it, the prospect of celebs descending upon the city.

"The only one we couldn't put off was the Archbishop of Canterbury," muttered one Nato official crossly. He dropped in last week, though Prince Charles, the Pope, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole all agreed to postpone until Nato had settled in.

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