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Despair deals mortal blow to besieged city: After 16 months under Serbian fire in Sarajevo, 'most people have no opinion about anything any more, they just want the shooting to stop'

THERE IS A feeling that these are the last days in Sarajevo. It is not just because the Serbs are hammering at the gates. The city is collapsing from within.

As Serb guns battered away as usual, two sisters, Lejla and Sejla, prepared the evening meal for their father from the contents of this week's United Nations food parcel. 'Look what I found,' said their father, wheezing after climbing five flights of steps. 'A bundle of nettles from the verge]' Sejla sighed: 'I'm allergic to nettles,' pointing to red blotches on her legs.

While Lejla cooked a sauce of flour, oil, water and onion stalks to pour over a bed of rice, Sejla examined her hair, which is falling out. As a chemist she knows what is happening: 'I am suffering from a deficiency of iron and vitamins. I dream of a plate of trout.' Her sister wrestled with the fire under the stove, made from cut up UN cardboard.

'Most people have no opinion about anything any more, they just want the shooting to stop,' said Edin, a radio journalist. On the 7pm news, the state-run television chattered about military victories against Croats in central Bosnia, but few cared. In any case, only a handful can watch because most people have no electricity. The average person has lost more than two stones during 16 months of siege, and the oncoming winter fills people with dread. Most of the city's trees were cut down last Christmas. This time round there will be no heating for most people.

There is disappointment with the West for not intervening, but also with their own government for raising false hopes. 'The spirit of the town is lower than at any time in this war,' said Kemal Kurspahic, the editor of the newspaper Oslobodjenje. 'Everyone is fed-up, and most people would accept any solution except the division of the city.

'First we lost electricity, then water, then gas, then phones. Sanitary conditions are awful. The daily food allowance from the UN is down to 35 grammes per person per day, which is almost nothing.'

Mr Kurspahic says morale collapsed when people concluded the world did not care about their fate. 'We all allowed ourselves to believe international intervention might happen when the Americans talked about striking Serb positions. The disappointment has crushed our spirits.'

The main talking point is water - where to get it, and whether Serbs will bomb the pump. Wells are easy to spot and shell. Between bouts of shelling, children as young as five wheel plastic buckets on trolleys to the wells and back. Wood is the other obsession. With most trees and park benches already chopped up, families scour burnt-out tower blocks for wooden tiles, planks and cupboards. On the bald hills around the city, you can see people digging up the roots of trees cut down last winter.

Oslobodjenje, which became an emblem of Sarajevo's struggle to survive against the odds, is close to collapse. Oil to fuel the generator has run out and paper supplies are almost gone. The print run has been cut to 3,000. Some days the paper is green, others days yellow, depending on what stocks are left. The presses could soon grind to a halt for the first time in 16 months of war.

The authorities have dealt a few hammer blows of their own to morale. When Muslim zealots forced the closure of private cafes and discos two weeks ago, they got rid of the only places where people could briefly forget the war. At a stroke they killed off a resilient street life which had survived months of shelling.

Adult men flee the attentions of army press-gangs. They are run by petty criminals-turned-war heros, known best by their nick-names of 'Caco' and 'Celo'. Infuriated by the sight of what is left of Sarajevo's jeunesse d'oree sunning themselves in bars while his boys were dying, Caco has taken to grabbing men on the street and marching them up to the frontline to dig trenches.

Slavenko Krstic, 35, an ethnic Serb, said Caco's men act like a private Gestapo. 'They grabbed me on the street, took me to the front and told me to dig trenches. After 18 days a sniper hit me in the arm.' He wants to escape to join his refugee wife in Croatia. 'Ninety per cent of people in Sarajevo want an end to this war at any price. Everyone is trying to escape.'

Elmedin, a 33-year-old lawyer, quit the Bosnian army recently and will not go back. 'The army is full of criminals,' he said. 'The command structure does not exist and they all want to be God. They send kids into battle and shrug if they die. I will fight the Serbs if there is a strategy, but these guys are cretins.' He wants to join his wife and four-month-old baby in Croatia before heading abroad. 'Who wants to waste the best years of his life working to save up for a packet of cigarettes?'

It is not surprising that the cosmopolitan and sophisticated spirit of the city has been snuffed out. What was miraculous, what will be remembered, was how long it lasted under trying conditions. A certain kind of 'bourgeois' Sarajevo, which dates back to the era of Habsburg rule, is at last fading away. Serbs and Croats in Sarajevo now want the war to stop and to know what sector of Bosnia they can live in peacefully.

But General Mladic and his Serb Chetniks are not going to march in and take Sarajevo tomorrow. The hard young men on the Bosnian frontline were not fighting for all those middle-class poetry symposiums, classical music concerts held in ruins, performances of Hair and Joan Baez concerts. They will not miss them much.

Elmedin believes Sarajevo will not fall to the Serbs on account of pure fear. 'People are not fighting for Alija Izetbegovic, or even for independent Bosnia, but for Chetniks not to come into their homes and kill them.'

Brooding in his office, Mr Kurspahic discounts horror scenarios, even if the fighting were to drag on through another Christmas. 'Last winter people said tens of thousands would surely die in a windowless, waterless, heatingless town. But we proved resilient. Now our physical resistance to illness is lower, but we have more experience.'

(Photograph omitted)