A Sunday stroll in besieged city awaiting peace

Emma Daly finds Sarajevans split equally between optimism and pessimism
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The Independent Online
A Sunday afternoon stroll through the warm autumn sunshine is a rare pleasure come only lately to the people of Sarajevo, accustomed for so long to venturing out, knowing, feeling that every excursion could be their last. Most of those walking the streets yesterday did so from need - buses are rare, the tramline is limited and petrol is expensive - but they were able to enjoy peace and quiet.

"It's lovely, everything is better. But look where we are standing: a sniper could shoot at any time," said Almira Kovacevic, a young blonde in huge dark glasses, pointing at the rusting, bullet-ridden wreck of an articulated lorry parked at a junction, protection of a kind from the gunmen 500 yards away across the front line.

"The situation is much better, but there is also an air of uncertainty that is killing people here. We can walk safely along the streets, but we are still imprisoned. I can walk from Bascarcija but only to the edge of Nedzarici," she said. The outer limits of her world stretch from the Old Town, some 10 miles west towards the Serb-held suburb beside the airport.

Her companion, Nedzad Musovic,is pessimistic about the ceasefire brokered by the US envoy, Richard Holbrooke, due to start at midnight. "It's a nice idea, but tough to make real," he said.

If all goes well, water, gas and electricity should flow in tonight, and the guns quieten. Citizens classify themselves as optimists or pessimists, a fairly even split, it seems but almost everyone sees the future as a glass half-empty. The good life does not exist, only that which gets less bad.

"There's no shooting now but we still don't have water, gas and electricity," said Minka, who lives with her husband and two daughters in a pock-marked flat overlooking Heroes' Square, one of the most dangerous places in Sarajevo. "The blue routes are open, so there is a lot of food but it doesn't mean anything to us because we still can't afford it."

Two months ago, the family moved out of their own flat - or rather, out of the tiny front room in which they ate, drank and slept for three years, and into a flat in the adjoining block. (Their other rooms had been barricaded against Serb shells and bullets fired from the line across the street.)

"It could so easily be like last year - a few months of cease-fire and then it all starts up again," Minka said.

"Freedom will come from the political negotiations," interjected her husband, Midhad. "And until then, so what?" said Minka crossly. "It will never be as bad as it was in '92 and '93, but I've lived the same way since the first day of war." From their balcony, the buildings looming over the square bear mute witness to the worst days of the war: three tower blocks gutted by fire - Minka's two teenage daughters, Alisa and Alma, heard the screams of the dying trapped inside - and every facade scarred by shrapnel marks and bullet-holes.That nightmare is over, it seems. But the advances of the past few weeks - and the Holbrooke plan, if it is fully implemented - will still bring only a half-life to the city. The flow of cars has increased, trams are running in the new town, but not along the road known as Sniper Alley. Shops that once sold only bare necessities now offer fax paper, UHT milk, jelly babies (or the German equivalent) and fruit.

It is not enough for Minka, but Alisa and her friend Maja, a Serb forced to flee the suburb of Grbavica, 20 miles away, are easier to please.. "It's time for the war to end. I can walk normally in the streets - but I'm still not safe. I still feel afraid," Alisa said. "Everything will be resolved over time."

"Everything will be solved over the water and electricity," Maja said. "But what happened between people ... " She paused. "Very bad things, that can't be forgotten quickly. It's not clear to me how that will work out." Midhad's army drinking buddy, Alem, broke in. "Water, gas, electricity - it doesn't matter. We've lived more or less without them for three and a half years. The point is to sort out the animals who did this." Crudely put, but Alem is right.