Gruesome tales from a dark, dank world: Emma Daly finds the conditions of unspeakable suffering in east Mostar are relieved only by candlelight and courage

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The Independent Online
MARSHAL Tito Street is decorated with starburst patterns every few yards, horribly beautiful footprints marking the shells raining down on east Mostar, each one a memorial to the victims of nine months of siege.

The old town has been utterly destroyed in a vicious battle for the soul of Mostar, once a multi-cultural city, now split by the Neretva river. Bosnian Croat forces control all but a pocket on the west bank. Bosnian Muslims hold the east, penned in by Croats on three sides and by Bosnian Serbs behind them. The frontlines are only yards apart. The tourist trail between old stone houses and souvenir shops is now a rubble-strewn path leading to what was the Stari Most - the arched stone bridge built in 1557 that once spanned the turquoise river. It was shelled out of existence last year, like most of east Mostar's 36 mosques and around 80 per cent of its houses.

A rope bridge now straddles the river. To collect clean water from the other side, people must run the gauntlet of sniper fire. On Sunday a shot rang out but failed to hit the man being cheered across by friends. It was a gloriously sunny day, just like the day when someone photographed the bridge for a tourist poster lying in the rubble nearby. 'The only things left in this town are beautiful February days,' said Dragan Milavic, who runs the town's makeshift hospital. He, like most residents, has spent the past nine months in a dank, dark basement, lit mostly by candles and the courage of those who live there.

The suffering in east Mostar is unspeakable, despite a lull in the slaughter since a ceasefire agreement last week. People live in Dickensian slum conditions, but still make an effort to wash, to dress neatly, even fashionably, to wear make-up, and to share what little they have with visitors. Side streets from the river to Marshal Tito Street are sight-lines for the snipers, and each junction offers the flimsy protection of a home-made barricade - grey metal sports lockers, for example, packed with stones from shattered buildings. Because of the incessant shelling and sniping, people have been forced into a subterranean, nocturnal existence.

These are the facts of life in a late 20th-century European city, as told by the local authorities: 1,367 dead, 6,000 wounded, 100,123 incoming shells, 37,000 refugees from west Mostar and western Herzegovina, 57,000 people living in a district where 80 per cent of their housing has been destroyed, nine months without running water or electricity. Everyone has a horror story.

Dr Milavic has just delivered an unwanted baby, the child of a young Muslim woman who told him she had been held in a brothel on the Croatian side and raped repeatedly. He says she was expelled across the front line when she was seven months pregnant. Now she wants her four-day-old baby adopted - by a European family, not a Croatian one. 'She is in a very bad psychological state,' he said. 'We will try to convince her to accept the baby, but she didn't want to look at it. She went home an hour after giving birth.'

This war began on 9 May 1993. 'On 11 May, my 73-year-old father went out to collect water. He just never came back,' said one young man. 'A while later, a neighbour came to offer his condolences and that is how we knew he had been hit by a shell.' Then a shell destroyed his building, killing a girl in the flat below. Now he and his mother, 'who has coped like a heroine', live with a neighbour.

In the golden light of a single candle, in a former sportswear shop, men and women sit on hard benches covered in Turkish carpets, damp clothes hanging from every available place. Down a steep spiral staircase, in the basement, are their beds, a dozen mattresses surrounded by empty cardboard boxes, once filled with aid, now fuel for the stove. A Yale University bag hangs among the coats on the wall. Twenty-one people call this home, strangers forced into sharing the most intimate parts of their lives.

Pasana Fejzic, a widow, lives here with her 16-year-old son. Her elder son and her husband were taken prisoner by the Croats, then released. The boy is in Jablanica, a safe Muslim area, but her husband was killed last month by a shell in the courtyard outside, the spot marked by a home-made flower pot filled with drooping plants. Her eyes are full of pain and the other women tell her story in whispers.

On the other side of east Mostar, a five-minute walk away, a family of Gypsies lives within the cold marble walls of a former boutique. The two men and the older woman, Vilma Halilovic, were in jolly mood, cooking in the street. 'It's so much better with the ceasefire,' said Ms Halilovic, kissing her hands and grinning broadly. 'We are very scared of grenades.'

And of snipers. Her sister-in-law, Umisa, a a shadow compared to the rest of her family, was shot in the stomach several weeks ago. She was five months pregnant, and the bullet killed her unborn child.

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