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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Electrical Engineer

£26500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is going through a period o...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Optimisation Executive - Marketing

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's fastest growing, multi...

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Creative Web and UI Designer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced creative web and...

Day In a Page

On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral