Santa sets off a merry tug-of-war in Sarajevo

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Christmas brought more conflict to Sarajevo than the city has seen for some time, but it was all in a good cause, as hundreds of children and their parents scrambled to grab one of the presents delivered in person by Father Christmas.

An Icelandic delegation flew into the city bearing a tree and 5,000 presents collected and packaged by Icelandic children for their Sarajevan counter- parts. Father Christmas emerged from the scrum more or less in one piece, his beard a little ragged.

"It was chaos," he said. "But I think the children liked it. The children's happiness is so great, even with only one little gift - it shows in their eyes. I know it is nothing, but we are trying to make a start."

As Muslims are the majority in Sarajevo, few children are Christians. But in multi-cultural Sarajevo, Christmas is a holiday for everyone. "We're planning to celebrate all together, the whole family," said Fatima Hasanovic, who brought her 15-month-old son Emir and nephew, Elmedin, aged two, to see Father Christmas.

"We are hoping it will be the first Christmas of peace, but ... there is always a `but'.

"We are Muslims, but we don't need much of an excuse for a party."

Her brother-in-law, Amil, a Bosnian soldier, nodded. "Peace and freedom, that's what we want to celebrate."

The two children, bundled up against the cold, have known nothing but war. "We're waiting to see Father Christmas because the children don't know who he is, or what he looks like," Mrs Hasanovic said.

Aida Kapo, a four-year-old in a silver-fox coat and matching hat, made by her mother from her own coat, was only slightly impressed. "He's nice," she said, grudgingly. "He also has grey hair. I said `hello' to Father Christmas and now I'm waiting for a present."

Her Croat neighbour, Davor Ilic, brought her to the park because her Muslim mother was working. "We are planning to celebrate - it will be a Christmas with a tree, drinks, a big party, cakes," he said. "The first normal Christmas. It will bring changes, but will show up the poverty. There are so many people here with nothing."

Mr Ilic plans to attend midnight Mass in Sarajevo's Catholic cathedral. A few yards away, Marshal Tito Street bears the scars of the city's two "market massacres" in February 1994 and August 1995, which sparked the Nato ultimatum, air raids against the rebel Serbs and ultimately the deployment this week of Nato troops to enforce the peace deal.

The Mass is always festive, the cathedral jammed with Catholic worshippers, Muslim and Serb visitors, the back of the church heaving as people pop outside for a fag and a chat.

"Everything is shared here - it's a multi-national town, and the same thing happens at Bajram," the Muslim spring festival, Mr Ilic said. There are few decorations around town. The Icelandic tree is draped in light- bulbs, though some wonderhow long the lights will last in a city with long power-cuts.

As Santa's elves handed out the presents, the successful examined their gifts. "I won't open my present yet - I want to savour the curiosity," said Dzana Grcic, 10. "It will be a great Christmas."