Shattered city that believes in yesterday: One year ago Sarajevo was peaceful, and proud of its ethnic diversity. That pride is now in ruins. Tony Barber on the 12-month siege of a stubborn capital

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The Independent Online
I STILL have the business card of Emira Zimic, a Bosnian Muslim to whom I was introduced in Sarajevo on a warm autumn evening in 1991. War was only a few months away, and I think that, in her heart, she knew it.

But like the rest of us, as we sat round the restaurant table in the Bascarsija, the city's old Muslim quarter, she could not bring herself to believe it. How could anyone wish to destroy Sarajevo? For all the ugly socialist realist buildings erected in Tito's time, it was an elegant city. For all the paranoid nationalisms consuming the rest of Yugoslavia, it was a city proud of its diversity and sophistication.

So we ate our cevapcici and drank our wine, and then Emira invited us to her home, where she played her old Beatles records into the early hours. In her apartment block there lived Muslims, Croats, Serbs and people of mixed nationality, all jumbled up, married, living together, getting along fine. They did not define themselves primarily by their nationality. Rather, they were Sarajlije, the people of Sarajevo, living proof, if proof were required, that the Balkans need not fall prey to venomous schemes of national exclusiveness.

When I visited Sarajevo in May 1992, I called Emira, but there was no reply. I set out for her home, but was caught in a burst of shellfire and sniper bullets that forced me to take refuge in the nearest building. It turned out to be the city's Jewish community centre.

Sarajevo's Jews, now numbering fewer than 1,000, are the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492. Unlike Jews elsewhere in Eastern Europe, they are valued citizens and do not go in fear of persecution.

That weekend, brave and selfless, the community's leaders effectively saved my life. They provided me, and others who had sought sanctuary, with shelter, food and even a bottle of beer. When the gunfire stopped, I bade a hasty farewell and sprinted back to my hotel, the Beograd. During my absence, a shell had crashed through the roof. There was blood and broken glass on the street in front.

Is it sentimental to think that, no matter how remorseless the physical destruction of Sarajevo over the past year, its moral spirit remains intact? It is difficult to be noble when bribery and theft are often the only way to feed yourself and your family. It is hard to proclaim the virtues of ethnic tolerance when gunners attack mourners in cemeteries and rooftop snipers pick out children.

But the siege of Sarajevo is not like the rest of the Bosnian war. It does not pit one nationality against another. It pits the city's defenders - Muslims, Croats, Serbs and those who still cannot understand why they had to stop calling themselves Yugoslavs - against a cynical besieging force camped in the hills outside. That force comprises the Serbian-dominated remnants of the Yugoslav army and irregular Serbian militias, drawn largely from rural areas around Sarajevo.

They are cynical because they select defenceless residents of Sarajevo as their targets. A housewife chopping at tree stumps for firewood, or an elderly man emerging from a cafe: it makes no difference. They are cynical because they have not genuinely sought to starve the city into submission. In return for German marks, US dollars or precious goods, they let a little food and alcohol filter through their lines. In all probability, they also take bribes for letting some weapons and ammunition into the city.

The United Nations helps the city to survive with its regular deliveries, by truck and aeroplane, of food and medical supplies. People arrive at distribution centres, show their identity cards and collect their aid packages. But the UN is not Sarajevo's most popular institution, especially since the Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, declared while on a short visit to the capital that he knew of 10 places in the world where conditions were worse.

Perhaps he was right. One thinks, for example, of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. Leningrad's plight in the Second World War was also more extreme. But that is to miss the point. Sarajevo is not just a city under siege, but a symbol. If it survives, then so do universal values of civilisation. If it falls, then night has truly fallen on the Balkans.

I wish I knew what happened to Emira. I was told that her home had been shelled to bits and she had fled Sarajevo. But just as she couldn't believe war would engulf her city, so I can't quite believe that I shall never meet her again in the Bascarsija.

To mark a year of the Sarajevo siege, tomorrow's Independent will include a four-page English version of Oslobodenje, the newspaper that heroically carries on among the shells and bullets.

(Photograph omitted)