Yugoslavia: A family at war in tower-block Number 5: Marcus Tanner finds neighbours in Sarajevo who share bread and troubles

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The Independent Online
'THERE IS no middle way in this war. A piece of bread you share today with a neighbour you will remember forever. The friends I have made now I will keep for the rest of my life.'

That comment, from a resident of Sarajevo, was echoed by others in the same apartment block. They call this particular cluster of tower blocks California because, despite being close to the centre of Sarajevo, they have been miraculously spared by Serbian mortar shells during the four-month siege of the city. In other respects, however, California is not untypical. The Bosnian spirit is not quite dead. Remarkably, residents of different nationalities continue to live peacefully together, despite the Serbian siege.

When you spend the night here, the shooting is almost constant.

In tower-block Number 5, on Proletarian Boulevard, there are 102 apartments. About half are occupied by Slav Muslims - the largest ethnic group in Bosnia - and a quarter each by Croats and Serbs. Only seven families, all Serbian, have left, for Belgrade or the other side of the barricades.

In May and June, when Sarajevo was bombarded day and night, the 95 families still in the block lived permanently in improvised air-raid shelters in the basement. 'The children slept on the central staircase, stacked in a row,' one woman remembered. For many people it was the first time they really got to know their neighbours.

Mirsada Becirevic, a Muslim nurse, is one of the few in the Driving around the city in an ambulance, her vehicle has been hit by snipers three times. The war has brought people together, Mirsada says. 'In wartime, people show their best or worst face. Everyone helps each other. It's a battle for naked survival. When the shells are falling we all sing together in the basement. The louder the better. It is a kind of defiance.'

Mirsada thinks that she is relatively lucky. 'I am growing onions on my balcony. I ate everything in the fridge during the first month of the war. But I can still get bread and macaroni. You have to queue for hours outside the bakery, sometimes when shells are falling all around you. But I know one girl in this building who did not eat a meal for four days. She was too ashamed to ask for help.'

On the floor below, Marina and Miroslav, a couple in their thirties, spend most of their time finding food for their son, Olja, two. Marina's salary as a teacher, equivalent to pounds 5 a month, just covers the price of two dozen eggs on the black market, the only source for such luxuries. She has to feed her mother and her mother's friend as well, both refugees from Serbian-held parts of the city.

Marina is Serbian. But she has experienced no problems in the block on account of her nationality. 'People are very friendly. Maybe it is because I never felt strongly about being Serbian. I don't have any words to describe those Serbs in the hills who are bombing us now. I am amazed that people who lived here for years had all that hatred stored up inside them.'

For Marina and Miroslav, a priority is protecting their son from the effects of war. 'It saddens me to hear Olja talk about snipers,' said Miroslav. 'Sometimes when I suggest going outside he clings to me and says, 'No, daddy, no, there is shooting outside'.'

Marina feels that Olja knows more about the war than he lets on. 'At the beginning of every bombardment I have noticed that he goes very still. I remember once when a particularly heavy bombardment stopped, how he just let out this long sigh.'

For the older children in the block, war and daily bombardment has imposed new restrictions. Playing outside is all but impossible. Even when the mortar shells are not falling, the Serbian snipers make the city's open spaces a permanent death trap. For most of the day the children play up and down the tower block's central staircase or in the basement shelter.

(Photograph omitted)