The Bosnia Crisis: Death departs, the agony lingers on: With the Nato deadline only hours away, war-weary Sarajevans expect little relief from the day-to-day misery: Life under siege

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The Independent Online
ON THE EVE of the Nato deadline yesterday, an old man shuffled past the spot, by a bridge across the Miljacka river, where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand and started the First World War. The old man was carrying a drawer full of cinders from his stove. Snow was falling heavily.

'Nobody knows whether peace is coming,' he said. 'It's in God's hands. We hope things will get better, but it's still very hard. We can walk freely now (since the truce) but nothing more.' He was wearing a threadbare coat, a thin scarf and a cap; he is 79 and survives on humanitarian aid. He has no family here; he lives alone. And he is afraid that if Nato does call in air strikes, the Serbs will punish Sarajevo with a renewed bout of shelling.

His fears were echoed by a couple of young Bosnian soldiers on R & R. 'If Nato did bomb, (the Serbs) would shell even more,' said Almir Smajkan, who is 20. 'But then it was just a gesture anyway. Even if the Serbs don't withdraw their weapons, Nato will not attack.'

His comrade, Nedim Feto, is only 17 but already battle-hardened. He says he joined the Green Berets, a Muslim paramilitary force, in September 1991, before the Bosnian war began, when he was only 14. 'I don't think peace will ever come,' he said. 'The problem is too big. Nato's threat will never end the war. They should lift the arms embargo - in that case the war would be over in two months. But they won't do that, because everybody is on the Serbs' side.'

People went about their business as usual: a woman doing her washing at a water pump, a girl loading plastic water containers on to a sledge, a man using a wheelbarrow for a similar task. It is Ramadan, but you would be hard-pressed to find evidence of it in this supposedly Muslim city.

There is little optimism on display either. Asked what they think will happen tonight and beyond, most reply, 'I don't know,' and pause to reflect. They say they hope for peace, but without much conviction.

Jasmina Dulic is in her mid-

fifties, smartly dressed in a mink coat, fur hat, wearing pink lipstick and using an umbrella to shield herself from the snow. 'I hope it means peace, but to me the deadline means nothing,' she said. 'I won't be watching the clock until then. I'll be going to bed early, because I have no electricity. Life is better now because there is no shelling, but nothing else has changed.'

That is another common theme: the truce has ended fears of a quick death, but people say that unless the siege is actually lifted, all they have to look forward to is a slow death.

'It's not enough just to stop shelling, they must lift the blockade,' said Muhamed Ajdinovic, a cheerful man selling books on the pavement in the city centre. He is a retired shoe salesman who makes ends meet by selling the books of friends and neighbours for a small commission. He will sell you Anna Karenina or Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass (in Serbo-Croat) for two German marks apiece, but business is not thriving. 'People want to read, but many just can't afford it,' he said.

For those eager to read in English, a stall down the road is selling a copy of Cosmopolitan for January 1987, price 90p, for one mark. The stall offers Bosnian newspapers and women's turbans in green, blue or red. The stallholder doesn't want to talk about the war or Nato.

Neither does a young man at the Jewish centre, who, reluctant to give his real name, settles for Jovan (John). 'I don't want to think about politics or the military. I'm 20 and it's all just so stupid,' he said. 'I want to get out of here, anywhere, I don't care.'

The synagogue, a short walk from Princip Bridge (renamed Austria Bridge), is an imposing pink building that has survived the shelling pretty well. But it has been closed throughout the war because, Jovan said, 'the old people, who are the most religious, are frightened to come out'. There is no rabbi, but he says there never has been; that job is done by a prominent local Jew.

Jovan is now in charge of the Jewish post office - the community is extremely well organised, receiving letters, money and aid packages fairly regularly - but is hoping to return to his studies and become an engineer. His parents made him stop going to classes because they were afraid he would be wounded or killed.

He has few hopes for Sarajevo and is cynical about all sides. 'Nobody can help us because we are stupid - that's the problem. Our people want war. When we decide to stop the war, it will stop - but that has not happened yet.'

Should that time come, it is likely to produce a exodus from the city. In the past few weeks, flyposters have gone up around the city: Interlingua is offering intensive courses in English, French, German and Italian, in preparation, it seems for the day they open the road out.

Vojislav, the director of personnel at a factory that made railway tracks and other steel products before the war, and now makes stoves and military equipment, is among those who plans to leave. He and his son have Serbian names; his wife has a Muslim name. That was all right before, but now he worries.

'The hatred is so deep,' he says. 'They (the West) call us Balkan savages, and some of us are. Things have happened so terrible that I can't see any future here.' In Serbian areas his wife will be a second-class citizen, he says, and in Muslim areas he will be. 'I think mixed marriages can now survive only in another country.'

Throughout this war, the besieging forces of Sarajevo have sought to do more than maim and kill - they have tried to destroy an entire city, a civilised society, a spirit. And from what Vojislav says, they have done a good job. 'When the first victim died it was a disaster for us. With the second and third, we started getting used to it. And now, when the shells come we are just happy, because it has not hurt us. It's very dangerous, because we are losing our sense of humanity.'

And that will not return for many years, whatever Nato or the United Nations does now.

(Photograph omitted)