Sarajevo Serbs pack for final exodus

Rumours and blind panic trigger mass flight from city's contested suburbs, writes Emma Daly
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Vogosca, near Sarajevo -The couple, friendly and fluent, chatted easily, if a little anxiously, about the future - until they posed for pictures before mounds of bags and boxes stacked in the hall.

Moments later, Jovanka Dzuric and her husband, Dobrivoje, were weeping inconsolably, their fear of life under enemy rule blotting out the familiar rigours of war. As Sarajevans prepared to celebrate their first peaceful New Year for four years - in the presence of Bono, lead singer of U2 and self-described "first tourist" to post-war Bosnia, all is gloom and confusion across the line as the Orthodox Christmas approaches.

The Dzurics, who will have little to celebrate, moved at the start of the Bosnian war in April 1992 from central Sarajevo to the distant suburb of Vogosca, a dreary modern town known only for its Volkswagen Golf factory. The rebel Serb army soon took control of the suburb, and the Dzurics have spent the past four years in the relative comfort of an absent Muslim family's flat, protected from the worst of the shelling.

They are an average family: she, a typist, spent the war keeping house, her husband, a former waiter at the Hotel Europa in Sarajevo, was sent to the front, along with most Serb men aged 18 to 60. Both are used to taking orders, and neither has had the power to affect the course of the conflict. But they have packed every last possession (save the coffee set and a few clothes) in preparation for what they see as an inevitable exodus. "When we fled Sarajevo we were too late to take all our things - this time we want to be ready," Mrs Dzuric said with a laugh.

By 3 February, the Bosnian Serb army will have withdrawn from Vogosca and four other suburbs; on 21 March, the Bosnian government will assume control. Most residents, like the Dzurics, are waiting to see, but making ready to leave, just in case. They are living in an anxious limbo, taunted by their leadership's insistence on a new "solution" for Sarajevo, and a rewriting of the Dayton peace plan to divide the city.

"We were helping my sister to pack yesterday," Mrs Dzuric said. "She left last night for Zvornik [a town on the Serbian border]. She has left with her furniture and she will not be back." Trucks are parked on the street outside, waiting for new customers; it cost Mrs Dzuric's sister 1,000 Deutschmarks to move. The hall is crammed with bags, boxes and rolled carpets, but the couple cannot afford the transport to a cellar in Bratunac, a Serb-held town in eastern Bosnia, where they plan to store their possessions. They have nowhere to go - save their flat in Sarajevo, now home to Muslim refugees, they think - but go they shall.

"How can we stay? I'm afraid of their government taking over," Mrs Dzuric said. "I could have stayed in Sarajevo in 1992 but I had very terrible experiences ... we lived in a building with Muslim families and we would greet one another with 'Good day', or 'Good afternoon'. But from the moment of the declaration of independence, they began to say 'Salaam aleikum' [Peace be with you]." Mrs Dzuric says she was threatened for not using the Arabic greeting.

Such incidents, while uncomfortable, do not merit a niche in the catalogue of Bosnia's war horrors. Yet Mr and Mrs Dzuric are convinced that it is but a short step from "hello" to a final goodbye. They assured us that President Alija Izetbegovic had promised to jail every Serb soldier for six years - a report that had escaped the notice of the international press. They had not heard him themselves, but friends had seen him on television ... Thus the flow of information works in the Bosnian Serb statelet, the Republika Srpska. Propaganda is so pervasive that wild rumours are received like gospel and stories are woven to fit the politically correct view.

"I know what happened to my relatives in Sarajevo," Mrs Dzuric said firmly. "My sister-in-law was killed. We were only told that she was killed in her house. Most probably it was a sniper." It emerged that she had been killed in August 1995, and that she lived in Hrasno, a district where all live in mortal danger - from Serb snipers across the front line 50 yards away. The likelihood is that Mrs Dzuric's relative was killed by Serb fire, yet her death is taken as proof of the Bosnian government's evil intent.

Neither Mrs Dzuric nor her husband seem to be extreme nationalists; they are "Yugo-nostalgics". Mr Dzuric carries in the pocket of his camouflage jacket a well-kept black-and-white photo of himself as a stiff young waiter standing by Marshal Tito. Their fear stems from rumour, conjecture and perhaps the well-guarded sense of guilt that touches many Serbs in Bosnia, regardless of their own role in the war. And they live in confusion, contradicting themselves in one breath.

"We will move all our things and perhaps later move the family," Mrs Dzuric said. So the family might stay? "No, not a chance. No way. Without our government we cannot stay."

Could Nato's peace Implementation Force (I-For), or the international police force due to patrol the area, guarantee their safety in any way?

"Even under I-For protection we would be afraid, because there would be no [Serb] soldiers on the front line to keep watch," she explained. "Although we believe in I-For, danger still exists."

Yet their main anxiety about staying put in Vogosca centres on the potential loss of their apartment: "I'm afraid the owner will come back and claim it - perhaps if it was a Serbian flat I would stay," Mrs Dzuric said. "What do you think - would we be safe here?" her husband asked.

Well, we replied, neither of you has done anything wrong and, for at least a year, the area will be patrolled by I-For, the foreign police, human rights observers. Perhaps it depends on the choices you face. If you have a house in Banja Luka, move there. If you will lose everything, stay here.

"That's true," he said. "We should be refugees again." He paused. "But we are not sure..."

A cry from the heart that echoes through the Serb-held suburbs of Sarajevo.