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Sarajevo takes a little break from morbid thoughts

The world's most photographed mortuary passed the third anniversary of the Bosnian conflict this week in calm and welcome obscurity, a place apart from the overflow of blood and grief in April 1992, when the first war dead of Sarajevo arrived, followed by the cameras. There remains the smell of death, a combination of blood, sweat and disinfectant. But the pace has slowed, dramatically.

"It's not the same job now,'' said Murat Pandzic, who has worked at the mortuary for 28 years. "It was horrible to see. So many people were killed, so many that we often could not fit them all in. I would rather have been on the front line than here at that time."

The men sat outside in the sun. Yesterday, the dimly lit mortuary was empty. The day before, it had contained the victim of a sniper. "We have occasional war dead now," said Redzo Grabovica, a man of suitably mournful aspect. "But we have a lot of suicides because people's nerves are shattered. They can't take the pressure and they kill themselves. Or, they get into fights and kill someone else. This is what follows from war."

After three years of the war, two spent under shell-fire, the city lives on its reserves and the black market. The hope of rescue by a foreign cavalry is dead. Many who wanted to leave have done so, replaced by refugees alien to the old Sarajevans. Others have grown resigned to imprisonment, lacking the connections or the cash to escape.

But, many of the remaining Sarajevans believe life in limbo at home is better than exile. "I had the chance to go, but I didn't want to, and I don't regret that," said Hilmo Hebibovic, who was working at the Holiday Inn on 6 April 1992, when Serbian snipers inside the hotel shot dead several people at a peace demonstration in the street outside. "I don't want to be forced to ask someone else for bread or mercy."

Both commodities remain available in Sarajevo, the latter to a surprising degree among a people bloodied and bowed.

"Everyone knows Bosnia is for three peoples - Muslims, Serbs and Croats," said Vahid Cavcic, a middle-aged soldier who said half his unit was made up of Serbian soldiers. But he said: "Only the army can bring peace."

The government appears to agree, breaking the four-month truce recently with attacks to recapture land and pressure the Serbs into talks. It is unlikely to achieve its objectives in the next few months.

"We don't think about tomorrow, we don't even make plans for next month, because we don't know what will happen the next minute," said Alma, a woman who works for an arts organisation. "It's better now, as there's less shooting. But still, time has no sense here."

The unfamiliar calm brought by the Nato ultimatum to the Serbs in February 1992, coupled with the opening of a road out of the city, raised hopes last year. As the summer passed with no sign of a solution, expectations died and resentment grew, even as material conditions improved.

The supply of running water, electricity and gas was erratic at best, non-existent at other times. Now, a limited current supplies most houses, and water and gas are available every few days. Three television channels broadcast news, sub-titled films and British comedies, including Blackadder, Monty Python's Flying Circus and Only Fools and Horses.

Basic consumer goods are available but expensive, thanks to black marketeers. Work is badly paid and restricted to the public sector (the army, police, bureaucracy, hospitals) or the service industry (cafs, restaurants, garages, shops and workshops). Almost everyone is a trader, cutting wood on the front lines for sale in town or selling possessions to buy food. The luckiest, those who speak English or French, work for the UN, the aid agencies and the journalists, and get real money.

Fuel is expensive. But taxis bounce along the pot-holed, heavily shelled roads that formerly were the preserve of foreign armoured cars. Police regularly stop drivers to check papers or to chastise those who break the rules. Bursts of gunfire scatter pedestrians at dangerous intersections and snipers still claim their gruesome prizes. But, the city survives.

"We have to fight to the end to stay independent," Mr Cavcic said. "If we don't have our country, we will be like the Kurds, in an enclave." His colleagues at the mortuary agreed.

"I don't think it will stop now," Mr Pandzic said. "We do what we have to. We have to stay here. That is our destiny."