Blood and destruction beyond imagining: In Sarajevo, Celia Hall was confronted by a despairing reality far worse than anything in reports of the siege

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The Independent Online
NOTHING had prepared me for it, not film or photos or conversation. Sarajevo, 20 months besieged, is a frightening place indeed: frightening because it is dangerous, and terrifying because you cannot understand how it can be allowed to happen.

It is lunchtime, muddy and misty. Mist is good for Sarajevans because the Serbian snipers in the hills cannot see them. A dash across the Tarmac, through a bunker to passport control. In an armour- plated UN vehicle a young, sad doctor, Ferid Huseinbegovic, waits to drive me through a desolate no man's land. Next, a Serbian checkpoint, then a couple of minutes closer to the centre, a Bosnian one. Now it is Snipers' Alley.

The destruction around is beyond imagining. Not a building without damage; some are grotesquely shattered. There is no relief from it and the all-pervading greyness. It is a broken city in monochrome. If only Ferid could laugh. He seems very tired. 'It's fairly safe at the moment,' he says as he puts his foot down on an exposed piece of road. He now works 12 hours a day for the World Health Organisation (WHO), my hosts in this forbidding place.

One wing of the Holiday Inn, which serves as the international press centre, is apparently out of range. I have never been anywhere so implacably sinister. The huge building designed to be full of warmth and wealth and light is profoundly unpleasant. It is cold, empty, broken and almost completely dark. I realise shadowy men are sitting in the lobby. In the room the window is smashed and boarded with UNHCR plastic tape and screening. The net curtain is torn where the glass came through. But there is 'priority' electricity and water to the lavatory.

It seemed to me, not that I had any way of judging, that the artillery activity was rather close. A UN peace-keeper told me later that in that 24 hours 150 shells had been fired into the Bosnian city. Casualties were light, though people died the day before and the day following. They said it was a 'bit high' but pretty normal for the past two weeks since the end of the Geneva talks.

One round of something sounded very close indeed. Ferid said he thought it had hit the state hospital. He could see the smoke. I was scheduled to visit the hospital in two hours' time.

Here are some Sarajevo facts: in the streets people are digging to expose the gas pipes to make their own connections. In the state hospital (where a boy and a woman survived the mortar hit on their room) they have so far treated 57 people for burns from small gas explosions. The hospital is stacking old patient records to burn for fuel. In the streets, people are digging out the roots of the trees they felled last winter and are hacking into the ancient plane trees of the boulevards. Because of stress and poor nutrition, the number of stillborn babies has increased by 60 per cent and premature births have risen by 243 per cent; the number of congenitally malformed babies has risen by 191 per cent. Overall the birthrate is down by nearly a quarter.

Few people are about. One or two run. They look pale and drawn but women pay attention to their clothes, wear make-up and hold their heads high as they walk through the rubble. Everyone you meet has their story to tell about the bullets that missed. A shell hit Ferid's apartment. Risto Tervahauta, a sardonic Finn who heads WHO operations in Sarajevo, tells of one that passed across his bed - he was in it and the shell ricocheted back again - of another that pierced a tyre.

But above and beyond all this, the refugee centre, the largest in the city at the medical school hospital campus, is the most powerful testimony to this awful war. It is home to 1,000 displaced people, crammed into student bedrooms. Poverty has its own smell and it is strong here. Outside there are gangs of wild children - 250 live at the centre - some of them have terrible hard eyes, tight enclosed faces, for all the noise they make. Against a wall three boys, perhaps 10 years old, push and kick in the groin a very small boy who is fair and wears a small, green tracksuit. It is over in a moment. They take something from his hand.

Bihorac Feriz, the centre's director, says there are not even the most basic facilities for children and no classes now since a teacher and four children died two weeks ago when their schoolroom was hit. Seventeen children were injured.

The cold corridors are completely dark and unseen people bump against me. I felt a child at my elbow, his hand icy, and felt terribly ashamed of my good boots, warm clothes, bulletproof jacket.

How can I ever forget the dignity of a Bosnian refugee who had nothing, yet offered coffee from her tiny supply. Pathetically, I put a small bar of chocolate, a little tin of tuna fish and a pack of cigarettes on one of the bunk beds. She lives there with her husband and daughter in one small room. From the window she can see her village in the hills from which she was 'cleansed'.

Lines from Julius Caesar keep running through my head: 'Domestic fury and fierce civil strife/Shall cumber all the parts of Italy;/Blood and destruction shall be so in use,/And dreadful objects so familiar,/That mothers shall but smile when they behold/Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war.' Hadija Hadic does not smile. Her soldier son was killed. She weeps a little as she tells me. The female doctor who translates weeps. Her son too is dead, killed in July. And in the end I weep for the crushing futility of it all.

Bosnia appeal, page 11

(Photograph omitted)