Battle for business as usual in hotel that takes the flak

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THERE can't be many Holiday Inn hotels where the guests wear flak jackets in the restaurant. But then again, there aren't many hotels where mortar shells, snipers and machine-gun fire have knocked out most of the windows.

'We never closed,' was the proud boast of the deputy manager of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. Marooned in the centre of Sarajevo amid blackened ruins, pummelled and blasted with shells, but still retaining a certain dignity, the Holiday Inn is a reflection of the tragic fortunes of the Bosnian in wartime.

Guests are advised not to go out of the front door. Not if they don't want to be shot by a Serbian sniper who has this spot well covered. The hotel gardener, who dallied too long in the car park by the door, was shot dead as he mowed the lawn. Most guests climb out of a broken ground-floor window.

In the evenings, the shelling can be so intense that the coffee cups rattle on the restaurant tables. 'I don't even notice it after three months of living through this,' said Marina, a waitress in the ground-floor cafe.

One evening, as we sat there, the power failures were so frequent that the lights went on and off like in a discotheque. The bombs fell and the manager-in-chief charged round the ground floor foyer brandishing a machine-gun. But Marina never spilt a drop of the cognac that she was pouring for her guests into tiny glasses.

During the heaviest shelling, in May and June, part of one side of the hotel was demolished. The deputy manager, Milan Knezevic, said: 'We lost 75 per cent of the windows and only a hundred of 330 rooms are now usable. Before the war started, we had almost 500 staff. Now we make do with 70. The staff work in shifts of three days or more at a time, to reduce the number of people who have to run in and out of the building under sniper fire.'

Notwithstanding all the precautions, three of the Holiday Inn's staff - including the gardener - have been killed since the war began. And most of the others have felt the war's tragic effects at close hand. 'In April my house was shelled, the windows were blown out and my father was badly wounded,' said Marina.

Sonja, the receptionist, said: 'My cousin was recently killed in front of the National Bank - a shell exploded in the middle of the crowd as they waited for bread.'

In spite of the broken glass that litters many of the corridors, the demolished south side and the constant harassment of the front door by Serbian snipers, the Sarajevo Holiday Inn is a testament to the resilience of the city's cosmopolitan spirit.

Resisting the temptation to persecute Serbs inside the city because of the siege of Sarajevo by Serbs on the hills outside, the hotel has retained its old policy of employing a mixture of Croats, Serbs and Muslims.

Sonja said: 'I feel proud that we still all work together. We are all friends. If I stay in Sarajevo it is a kind of victory. It is a victory if we just stay alive.'