Shells fail to drown east Mostar's voice of hope: Emma Daly visits a team of journalists and DJs broadcasting from among the rubble

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The Independent Online
WAR STUDIO is a beacon of humour, energy and tolerance in the wasteland of east Mostar - where thousands of people live in basements under the rubble of shattered shops and houses - broadcasting music and news to those listeners who can find batteries for their radios.

It has been a good week for Mostar; hundreds of people have taken advantage of a ceasefire and the spring sunshine to wander the streets in daylight, to stand around chatting to friends they have not seen for weeks.

It has not been like this for nine months. But during the worst of the shelling, despite the constant sniping, the journalists and DJs at War Studio have turned out news and rock'n'roll, and even produced a fortnightly magazine, Mostar Morning. Before the war, the radio people worked in a proper office, with real transmitters; but that was in Croat-held west Mostar, and that is now home to those who are killing and maiming their friends and neighbours.

Dragi, the music editor, is chatting to a DJ in the tiny studio, a makeshift office crammed with old albums in ragged sleeves, dozens of cassettes and a few CDs - from Mantovani to Guns N' Roses via Sting. The meagre equipment - a mixing deck, an old stacking stereo and turntable - has been donated by residents of east Mostar, who have had little use for their sound- systems since their electricity was cut off last May.

Today they are broadcasting on 90.6FM, but the frequency changes constantly in an attempt to thwart the Croats who jam the station's output. Several months ago they bricked up the windows with breeze-blocks; protection against shells falling in the courtyard outside. Most people thought the entrance to the station was reasonably safe until last month, when three Italian journalists were killed by a shell yards from the door.

There are still people in the city determined to reclaim the pre-war atmosphere of tolerance. 'There are Croats, Serbs and Muslims working at the radio station,' said one journalist, who described himself as a Bosnian Catholic rather than a Croat. 'I would like to be an optimist, but I know this war has been Serbs and Croats against Muslims. The Muslims have been the victims.' His determination not to toe the ethnic line almost cost him his life, and he asked to be identified by a pseudonym, Milton.

Before the war, he worked as a journalist for Radio Mostar; when it began to espouse Croatian nationalism, he switched to Radio Bosnia-Herzegovina.

One morning he was awoken at home in west Mostar by soldiers from the Croatian Defence Council (HVO), who asked what he was. 'I answered 'Bosnian Catholic', and they said there was no such thing, it was Muslim, Serb or Croat. So I was put under house arrest.' A few days later they returned, expecting a better answer. When none was forthcoming, they beat Milton up, forced him to don an HVO uniform, and marched him to the front line with another man. Then they told him to walk across to the other side.

'I was a bit frightened, but mostly furious that they were making me do this,' Milton said. There was firing all around, but he and his companion walked across with their hands up. Halfway there, 'I found a hiding place, but the other man was hit in the leg by a sniper, and lay there wounded for 15 minutes.' Eventually, a couple of Bosnian soldiers came to collect the two men - and recognised Milton's voice from the radio. Now he edits a Bosnian army newsletter and has had to give up broadcasting because he does not want to alert the Croats to his continued presence on the east bank of the Neretva river.

'I feel good', was blasting out of a boombox until the electricity, rationed to a couple of hours a day, cut out. In the darkness, lit only by the glow of cigarette-ends, a young man with a guitar began playing 'Knocking on Heaven's Door', and pretty soon everyone was singing along, as one couple danced cheek to cheek.

'You can see we're not fundamentalists, we're Europeans,' said Milton, taking a slug of vodka and lighting a cigarette. The singers launched into 'Multi-coloured stones', a pre-war Mostar pop song. The man who sang it then is dead, Milton says, shot by Croatian police in his front-line apartment.

And then, by special request, a song about the Stari Most, the bridge that was the heart of Mostar; now utterly destroyed by the Croats. What with the accordion player, the crowd of locals, the Spanish doctors from Medicos del Mundo who live in Mostar and work in its primitive hospital, it was a pretty good party. But, said one woman there, 'the parties are actually best when they are really shelling hard outside'.

(Photograph omitted)