Actors bring furious spirit to theatre of war: Emma Daly met young people who returned to Sarajevo just before the shelling began but refuse to be daunted by the siege

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The Independent Online
MIRZA HALILOVIC came home to Sarajevo after a spell at the National Theatre in Mostar on 4 April 1992, two days before the first Serbian shell landed on his city. Twenty-two months later, he is touring in Silk Drums, a piece of Noh theatre in which he and his colleagues perform in Japanese masks made - he does not know how - in Sarajevo.

The International Film and Theatre Festival Company has given 18 performances of the show so far to around 800 people in community centres, public kitchens and hospitals around town. The show goes on whenever electricity allows, which is quite often at the moment. 'We're managing, we're in a good mood at the moment,' said Mr Halilovic, an engaging young man who speaks excellent English.

He is also an assistant to the director, Haris Pasovic, who returned to Sarajevo on New Year's Eve in 1992 with a mission to revive the city's cultural life. Since then, the group has worked with Susan Sontag on Waiting for Godot - Mr Halilovic played the messenger - and organised a film festival, when people would run across the road, at risk from sniper fire, for the chance to see one of 115 films, including the latest Dracula.

Walking to work one day, Mr Halilovic heard a grenade land on the spot he had just passed. 'I don't worry about anything any more,' he said. 'We're just running our lives as we did before.'

His colleague, Vanessa Glodjo, is a drama student - 'an extremely gifted actress', according to Mr Pasovic - who lives close to the front line. Her house has been destroyed, she was wounded at New Year, but still she comes every day, on foot, to classes or rehearsals.

This refusal to give up or give in seems fairly typical of the place. 'I think of the young people coming to auditions at the Actors' Academy during the worst of the shelling - you see there the city's future. It's surreal. And even if there is no future, there is still something here you can love,' said Mr Pasovic.

The future hangs heavy on their minds; and while things are better during this truce than they have been for a long time, they see little hope in Nato's ultimatum for the long term, and are afraid to let themselves hope.

'People have learnt to avoid disappointment - we've been hurt many times in our just expectations. And especially as the situation is unclear - the most pessimistic are saying they will bomb us,' added Mr Pasovic, laughing.

A map of the world hangs in the office 'to remind us we live on this planet'. It's not hard to see why they feel they need it. The marketplace massacre on 5 February outraged the West; the Sarajevans wonder why.

'To allow 10,000 people to be killed in Europe at the end of the 20th century in one city, to allow a genocide in Europe at the end of the 20th century - it's a disaster for civilisation,' said Mr Pasovic - urbane, the very model of a modern European. 'It shows nothing has changed - the old colonial attitude to the world still exists. To be white is quite shameful.'

They are angry because they feel the West has no thought for the future - theirs and ours - that, in the West's eagerness to finish off Communism it gave no thought to what was to come next. 'Obviously 10,000 dead is not enough,' said Mr Pasovic.

'Six million Jews or 24 million dead in the Second World War, is enough. We need 24 million dead; then we can start thinking about the future.'

They are angry because the 68 who died at the market provoked a response that the daily toll - 10 to 15 dead, day in, day out - did not. People keep saying: 'Why that? We had that every six weeks at least.' Mr Halilovic's brother was at the market when the shell landed. 'I didn't know all day if he had survived, but he did, he was not hurt. I did not go to look at the scene. I can't stand it any more.'

The actors are a friendly bunch, hanging around the office gossiping and smoking heavily. They are lucky: they are young and the office is warm enough for you to take your coat off. The electricity will be back on soon. Their neighbour pops in, a sprightly woman in her 70s, snappily dressed in purple coat and matching hat, a walking stick in one hand and a shopping bag in the other.

She speaks French and rusty English - she has a sister living in Canada. Olga, the actors say, is a Serb, who comes from a rich family. Her father used to own half the shops in the street, but he lost a great deal in the Second World War. Still, she had a nice life, good clothes, antique furniture before The War - this war.

Now she sleeps in the kitchen of her fourth-floor flat and has to carry up water. There is no heating. They say she used to sit there trembling with terror at the shelling, tears rolling down her face; with the truce, she comes across as feisty, a survivor. 'It's a very hard life on the fourth floor,' she said, with no trace of self-pity. 'So I spend more time down here with you beautiful children.'

In spite of it all, Mr Halilovic has no regrets about returning home to a life under siege. 'I became addicted to the city. Before the war I sometimes hated it, I thought it was boring. But this city still has something about it . . . '