Dodging shells and waiting for liberation

Sarajevo/ view from the ground
Click to follow
SARAJEVO awoke to a calm, sunny morning, the sound of birds and children playing replacing the pitched battle noise of Friday and prompting feverish speculation about the apparent lull in the fighting. The government, for obvious reasons, is not talking; the UN is ill-placed to provide much information as its soldiers are restricted from moving in most front-line areas.

The Bosnian army, which is believed to have taken some ground on various hills around the city, was probably "digging like billy-o", one official said, in an attempt to consolidate new positions with trenches and bunkers. There are three main areas of interest near the city.

On Debelo Brdo, the steep green hill south of the city scattered with rocks and scarred with trenches, the Bosnians are thought to have taken part of the main Serb supply road from Lukavica barracks, south-west of the airport, to the rebel Serb "capital", Pale. Sporadic explosions in the area, and occasional blasts of machine-gun fire, reminded residents that the battle had only just begun.

At lunch-time, several shells fell into the city, two landing harmlessly in the grounds of Kosevo hospital, where two patients were killed in a similar attack on Friday. Medical staff have been on duty there since Thursday. "We are so tired, so exhausted," said Professor Mehmedalija Budalica, the only one of nine pre-war thoracic surgeons left in Sarajevo. Doctors are not the only commodity in short supply. "After yesterday we are in a very critical situation with medical supplies." The World Health Organisation, which had distributed half of its medical supplies to Sarajevo hospitals in anticipation of increased casualties, yesterday demanded an end to the shelling of hospitals - six patients have been killed in their beds in the past 10 days.

"You have heard the bombs today," said Professor Budalica with a shrug. A couple of nurses echoed his feelings. "It's worse now than it used to be because we got accustomed to a better situation," said Binasa Sijercic. "It's terrible to be back living like this." Her colleague, Aisa Kozic, added: "I've never been late for work - the shells just whistle past me." But despite the carnage which the staff at Kosevo must seek to repair, they are right behind the Bosnian offensive, and any attempt to liberate the city.

"We always live in hope. I think freedom is just around the corner," Ms Sijercic said. "That's why we work here and fight for the lives of our patients," said Ms Kozic. Nonetheless, the problems of daily life increase by the day. "The public health situation is becoming very dire - people cannot go on much longer having so little water, electricity, gas and food," said Stephanie Simmonds, a WHO spokeswoman.

The hospital has priority for electricity, there is a generator in the intensive care unit, and water is brought by tanker every day. But food stocks are down, and the supply tunnel under Sarajevo airport has been closed to civilian traffic, so no food is coming into the city.

Most shops remained closed yesterday, though shoppers took advantage of the few that opened. "They are coming in to buy tins," said one shopkeeper, who has increased the price of a small can of peas by 50 pfennigs to 3DM. Her limited stocks included rotting potatoes, a few oranges, cans of Pepsi and packet soups, but she has reserves at home for sale in the future. "I think the siege will end in a few months - I can survive that," she said.

In the meantime, everyone in Sarajevo is trying to work out why the Serbs have remained so quiet thus far: is it because they are short of ammunition following the Nato air strikes that destroyed 80 per cent of the arms dump near Pale; because they are over-stretched and afraid; or because they are biding their time, bent on inflicting the maximum pain they can? The city fears it is the third option.