Bosnia Catholic leader stays with his flock: Archbishop Vinko Puljic, a Croat, has hung on despite the dangers, writes Marcus Tanner in Sarajevo

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The Independent Online
THE STAINED-GLASS window over the high altar is peppered with bullet holes but, for the most part, Sarajevo's Croatian Catholic cathedral has weathered a year of war and bombardment well.

The Austrians knew how to build. A dedication tablet in the porch extols the memory of the Emperor Franz Josef, whose nephew was assassinated only yards away in 1914, igniting the First World War.

Vinko Puljic is not looking forward to Easter this year. The Archbishop of Sarajevo, Primate of Bosnia and spiritual leader of Bosnia's 700,000 Croats has endured nights of shelling, crossed rowdy Serb-manned barricades and was once threatened with death by drunken Serbian soldiers. In the Serb-held suburb of Ilidza he was detained by guards who wanted to swap him for two Serbian journalists held inside the city.

But tomorrow, he says, will be one of the most difficult days in a traumatic two-year career as Archbishop. 'This Easter the people have no food and this really breaks my heart,' he says. 'I am not talking about preparing anything special, I am talking about basics.'

In a year of war the Archbishop has remained steadfastly at his post in the besieged city with 19 other priests, slipping out only to see the Pope earlier this year, to implore him to visit the shattered city.

On the day fighting began in the city he hurried back from Croatia by car across dozens of barricades to Sarajevo. 'It was tough - none of them were Croat,' he recalls with a laugh. Since then he has been a prisoner of the siege like anyone else, an impotent spectator while Bosian Serbs, who control 70 per cent of the republic, have destroyed churches and driven out his flock.

'I feel like Job when he heard his sons were killed and his lands destroyed, when I think of the destrction of my parishes,' he said.

Of 144 parishes in the archdiocese, 62 have been virtually erased from the map, with no clergy, no working churches or flock to speak of. More than 100 church buildings have been demolished, including a couple in Sarajevo, by Serbian bombs.

With no working post or telephones, the Archbishop has no communication at all with a large segment of his diocese. Perhaps to make up for it he is highly active inside Sarajevo, travelling by car to the front lines and hurtling along a stretch of road known as 'Snipers Alley' in Sarajevo to celebrate Mass in the besieged western suburb of Dobrinja. 'Of course I am afraid but I am still alive, thank God,' he says.

For his priests it has been a year in which funerals far outnumbered weddings. One priest suffered a nervous breakdown and had to pack it in. Many Croats from Sarajevo have died, but those alive are returning to the church in droves, the Archbishop claims. Births are few, but baptisms are soaring among adults.

There have been subtle battles. The Croats have set up a mini-state called Herzeg-Bosnia in south-west Bosnia, with its capital at Mostar. Some Bosnian Croat leaders are irked that the Archbishop has not shifted his seat from Muslim-dominated Sarajevo to the truly Croat Herzeg-Bosnia.

The Archbishop is adamant. 'My duty is to remain with my people here. I feel quite lucky. No one persecutes me in Sarajevo and I can go to my cathedral whenever I want. The only thing I have to worry about is a grenade landing on my head or a sniper's bullet.'