Sarajevo Diary

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The Independent Online
Le tout Sarajevo (apart from the government, which appears to have moved in its entirety to Dayton, Ohio) has spent the past two days at the city's Austro-Hungarian National Theatre enjoying the delights of a festival set up by Neue Slovenische Kunst (New Slovenian Arts). Punters queued up to have their photos taken for "passports" issued by NSK and admire the bizarre Laibach posters, which feature an unsettling amount of Nazi iconography.

The high point was a concert by Laibach, whose darkly Gothic cover of the fluffy Euro-pop hit "Life is Life" won wild applause but little actual dancing - even before the war, Sarajevo was notorious among bands for the passivity with which audiences sat through gigs, according to a friend who is, among other things, lead singer of a well-known local group.

The theatre's massive chandelier swayed gently above the crowds, the gilt and red velvet somewhat at odds with the long, narrow stage banners (Third Reich-style) bearing the logo of the Atlantic Alliance (a recent album was entitled Nato) and the woodcuts of war scenes projected on to the backdrop.

It was an appropriate mix of the machismo and surrealism beloved of Balkan artists and a rare opportunity for Sarajevo's young to forget the war - although with peace talks under way in Dayton, some saw the concert as a fortuitous omen. "I think tonight might be the end of the war," said Adis Cengic, a young man forced to flee the Serb-held district of Grbavica in 1992 - sans Laibach albums. "Laibach is a good sign. I feel great." The mood of optimism in the theatre was fuelled by clouds of hashish smoke and the fact that here, at least, was an escape from the bitter cold.

I had not seen my friend for more than a year until we met at the concert; the last time we spoke he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and going into hiding for a while. After three years in the trenches, eating beans, he was close to collapse, unable to work at his sculpture but loath to leave Sarajevo. "Do you remember taking me to dinner at the Holiday Inn? It was the first time I had seen meat for two years and I just couldn't believe my eyes," he said with a grin. Since then he has put on weight and is filled with optimism, convinced that the war is about to end. But nothing changes overnight here - today he is heading back to the front line for a month of what he expects (and hopes) will be utter tedium in the freezing cold.

Winter has roared in with a vengeance, blanketing the city in a foot of snow that hides the worst of the war damage and transforms the landscape into the comforting visage of a cosy Alpine town - that is, until the gas pressure drops and people retreat into a single room that can be heated more easily. The old tradition of pickling vegetables for winter is in full flow among those who can afford to buy supplies or who have managed to grow cabbages in the dozens of allotments filling verges across the city.

In Heroes' Square, a grim district on the front line, a few straggly cabbages lurch under the weight of the snow in the courtyard of bombed- out tower blocks. Minka, who lives here with her husband and two daughters, has bought and pickled 50kg of cabbages to last the family for the next two months. "This plot was divided among 30 or 40 families, so we only get a tiny piece of land. It's hardly worth growing vegetables here for food - it's more of a hobby," she said.

"This is very good for hangovers," she said, handing over a glass of noxious pickling juice, a grim combination of water, salt and cabbage. In a small cupboard she is growing mushrooms in two large nests of dried grass; last winter she netted 9kg. Before the war, she would pickle anything: peppers, cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes - she reels off the list in wistful tones - but now cabbage is all she can afford. Still, it's a vast improvement on the past three winters, when she had no vegetables at all.

Surprising as it may seem, it is more often entertaining than depressing to visit Sarajevans, despite the grim conditions in which they live: the city seems to exist on a diet of black humour. A friend travelling to Sarajevo by bus said her fellow passengers, terrified by the prospect of crossing Serb territory, even with a UN escort, grilled a Bosnian soldier checking their papers about the danger. "Do the Serbs ever stop the bus and take people away?" one asked anxiously. "Oh yes," he replied. "But they usually only take a few, so I'm sure you'll be OK." The bus waited nervously for the peace-keeping escort to arrive. "Of course they'll be on time - just like they were for Srebrenica," cried another traveller.

The city is braced for another showdown with the peace-keepers: an Anglo- French team is training hard for a battle next week with Zenica, the most successful rugby club in the former Yugoslavia (national champions 14 times, winners of nine national cups). The money in Sarajevo is on the Bosnian team, although the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) will field several players from the British and French combined services teams for the game at Zetra's Olympic stadium.

"Our main aim is not to win, but to come to Sarajevo and find peace," Enes Begicevic, spokesman of the Zenica club, said. "Rugby is a universal language, and during this war the only teams we have played have come from Unprofor."

The record so far stands at Britbat 3, Zenica 2 (Britbat being the British battalion based near Zenica). The last away victory, however, required a little help, Mr Begicevic said. "The British fielded some cuckoos in the nest - we found out they had some New Zealanders playing."

Bosnian rugby has its genesis in locals who studied abroad then came home with the rugby bug, and now exports a few players (Muris Uzunovic plays for Harrow), but even with videotapes of the Rugby World Cup and the England-South Africa game, the team is starved of men and equipment. "We lost 15 players in this war: some in the army, some as civilians," Mr Begicevic said. "At the moment the full team has only one strip, which was donated by Britbat. We would like to ask British clubs if they could send us some equipment, especially uniforms and shoes for kids."