Bombs rain on ancient mosques of Sarajevo: The old quarter was the hub of Yugoslavia's most cosmopolitan city. Marcus Tanner views the destruction of the 'Damascus of the North'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
FROM Sarajevo's Holiday Inn to the Old City the journey used to be two stops by tram. Now the only way is to drive at top speed across a broad, exposed intersection, which is pounded every day with heavy Serbian mortar and sniper fire from the hills above. Bombed trams lie across the road, snapped cables dangling.

Sarajevo's old quarter was once the hub of life in the most cosmopolitan city in what used to be Yugoslavia. A warren of lanes between the Serbian Orthodox cathedral, the Croatian Catholic cathedral and several ancient mosques houses a dense network of bustling cafes, boutiques and small open-air fruit and flower markets.

This is the Bascarsija, the old Turkish market adorned with Ottoman monuments over the centuries, such as the 16th-century Ali Pasha Mosque. Victorian travellers nicknamed the city 'the Damascus of the North'.

Today a bunch of faded posies lies in Vase Miskina Street, the mainly deserted main street of the Old City. The flowers mark the spot where a grenade recently fired from the Serbian-held hills above killed dozens of hungry people as they queued for bread and milk.

The smell of cevap, a kind of Turkish kebab from the Balkans, was once an inescapable part of life in the Bascarsija. Now gaunt passers-by tap hopefully on the shoulders of the few visiting journalists or observers, asking for food, cigarettes and sometimes even water.

Serbian mortar shells have destroyed much of Sarajevo's famous inheritance of Orthodox and Catholic churches and mosques. The Ali Pasha Mosque, built in 1530, has a hole in the roof and part of the minaret is missing. Another smaller medieval mosque is nearly demolished. The Jewish cemetery is reported to have sustained terrible damage from mortar shells, which have destroyed many of the ancient tombs.

The trestles in the fruit and flower market in the middle of the Bascarsija are no longer laden with local produce. Beside the Catholic cathedral, the Hotel Belgrade has been turned into a billet for Bosnian fighters. The last hotel guests fled long ago, after a mortar shell landed on the roof and blew out the interiors of all the rooms on the top two floors. About 100 members of Sarajevo's 600-strong special police unit sleep here on the lower floors.

Electricity is intermittent and in the dark a fighter called Arif discussed with a friend a forthcoming exchange of prisoners with his former Serbian colleagues, who now fight on the other side.

'They call us about twice a week on walkie-talkies and tell us who they want to swap,' said Arif. 'We know them all very well because we used to drink together in the same cafes before the war. The last time that they called they wanted the mother of a Serbian fighter in exchange for eight Muslim civilians in their area.'

Arif, a former travelling book salesman, sees no end to the fighting in Bosnia. 'If the war stops in Sarajevo, another 300 little wars will immediately break out in other parts of Bosnia,' he said.

In spite of the constant gunfire many people have become almost blase about the dangers facing them each day. The road intersections in the Old City which face the Serb-held hills are deathtraps. Even old people run across them at full speed. But in the courtyards children play hopscotch throughout the day, indifferent to the din of mortar shells.

The fortunes of war have divided the Old City's religious leaders. The Serbian Orthodox bishop has fled to Serbian-held territory with most of his clergy. The Muslim leader of Bosnia has disappeared. Only the Croatian Catholic archbishop has remained at his post.

(Photograph omitted)