Dust returns to dust in ashes of Yugoslavia: Robert Fisk watched the daily labour in a Sarajevo cemetery, where old graves are having to make room for the newly dead

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THE eternal rest of 56-year-old Kristjian Dekic was disturbed yesterday morning. A rather haughty man with a slight smile, a broad, dark tie and a wing collar, or so the miniature enamelled photograph on his gravestone showed him to be, he died back in 1928 - in the old Kingdom of Yugoslavia, when Sarajevo was better known for one local assassin rather than thousands.

But Slavko Kovacevic and his fellow gravediggers are pragmatic men, every bit as businesslike as the bourgeois Mr Dekic must have been in his life, and they needed the old man's grave.

Shells swished high over Saint Josip's Catholic cemetery as they hacked away at the frost-covered earth with pick-axes, the ordnance cracking and shuddering into the housing estate on the other side of the Olympic stadium. Only occasionally - when a shell ricocheted with a howl off an apartment block - did Mr Kovacevic and his men glance nervously around or peer out over a grave.

The Sarajevo city authorities have dressed their gravediggers in grey overalls and UN-blue soft hats so that they look like refuse collectors; which is, in a sense, what they are. 'There's not much left when we get down into the grave,' Mr Kovacevic announced casually. 'A few bones usually. We dig a little deeper and put the bones down there. Then we bury the new body on top. What else can we do? Look at how many bodies we have to bury here.'

Fresh earthen mounds lie between the old graves at St Josip's as well as on top of them. Mr Kovacevic and his colleagues cheerfully welcome visitors to their dismal workplace which is a witness to both their endurance and their suffering.

In the frost and among the white-rimmed evergreen leaves with which the Bosnians cover their dead, we tripped over new graves and half-stumbled into newly opened tombs. Since September, Slavko Kovacevic and his workmates have buried more than 500 corpses in this frozen ground, almost all of them victims of the same 10-month bombardment that hissed over us yesterday.

Mr Dekic, sixty-five years undisturbed until his grave was needed by the war's latest victim, was a Croat - Catholics are buried together in St Josip's, Orthodox Serbs in the adjoining plot of St Mark's - but his Serb neighbours are treated with equal indignity. Headstones with ornate carvings and Cyrillic texts lie smashed and piled up by the shattered cemetery wall. The time has long since passed when their fate might have been catalogued; wartime burial in Sarajevo today is a brisk, no-nonsense affair.

Behind Mr Kovacevic, a middle-aged couple stood by a mound of earth, she holding a candle in the freezing air, he dabbing a paper handkerchief at his eyes and nose. On a new wooden cross was written 'Anita'.

Beyond the graveyard, at the entrance to the new cemetery in the Olympic football stadium, another funeral had begun, a line of black that snaked through the frost, the shellfire causing not a single sudden movement among the mourners. What was it that allowed these people - the mourners at Anita's grave, the funeral cortege, Slavko Kovacevic and his fellow workers - to ignore the crack and swish of death around them? Perhaps Mr Kovacevic understood the continuum war had brought as he pick-axed away at the tundra. But the others?

'I don't feel anything when I find the bones,' one of his men confided. 'They're dead. They're gone long ago. Maybe it was a good time then.' He was using a shovel deep inside Kristjian Dekic's grave, the earth soft and moist now that he had dug four feet down. Mr Dekic's portrait stared at the man's back. Perhaps he was not haughty after all, this long-dead Croat. The carefully groomed moustache above the wing collar suggested vanity as much as superciliousness - a doctor or a lawyer perhaps - certainly a man of substance with responsibilities in a society that was doomed to disintegrate twice within the six and a half decades after his death.

The gravedigger looked up, his nose just above the earth. 'I don't think I'm going to find anything of this fellow left,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)