Tolerance survives Sarajevo's bombs: Marcus Tanner finds a people who, after a year under siege, refuse to succumb to the hatreds stalking their country

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ALMOST to the day, a year after the siege of Sarajevo began, the deep snow has started to melt. Water pours off the gutters of mosques, churches and old Austro-Hungarian apartment buildings of the city's Turkish quarter. Taking advantage of a ceasefire, groups of people, faces pale and lined by six months of hunger and cold, edge cautiously into the sunlight, as children in ragged clothes play in the bombed ruins.

New grass is already sprouting in the muddy expanse of Sarajevo's Zetra sports stadium, acres of which are now covered by tiny wooden staves marking the graves of some of the 8,000 citizens of Sarajevo killed this winter. Only a minority died in soldier's uniform on the front line. The rest were killed by shells as they queued for water in the street, by snipers' bullets or by hunger and cold at home.

Although images of death cannot be avoided in a city where parks are now graveyards, the city is still a community of more than 300,000 people who are battling to survive, reproduce and rebuild. Every day ingenious feats of improvisation testify to a powerful will to carry on.

Take the man recently interviewed on Bosnian television who generates electricity for his television set - so he can watch the main 7pm news - by peddling a bicycle in his front room. Or take Vedran Smailjovic, Bosnia's best-known cellist, who commemorated Sarajevo's first year under siege by sitting in white tie and tails in the burnt-out shell of the old town hall and playing Bach.

Most people have a tale of how they endured the terrible winter. Katica, an elegant elderly Croatian woman who lives in a high-ceilinged apartment built by the Austrians and tucked behind the Croatian Catholic cathedral, says she owes her survival to a chicken. 'When the war started I bought a bird to kill and eat, but it was so tiny I decided to keep it alive in a pen under the stairs. Around Christmas, when I and my sister were really hungry, I came downstairs and found she had laid a large clutch of eggs. She gave us 12 eggs over the Christmas holiday, like a miracle.'

Those who do not raise chickens under the stairs or in the living room, grow carrots on the balcony. The rich - or desperate - turn to the black market. A covered market near the old Serbian church, and which was once the fruit and vegetable market, serves as a centre for black-market operations. Everything is available, in tiny quantities and for huge sums.

Nosing round the stalls I found Sanjin, a 33-year-old Muslim. 'On my policeman's salary, which is worth about four Deutschmarks, I cannot get anything here. It is incredibly expensive,' he said.

'If I had Deutschmarks I would be able to give my two kids eggs and fruit,' said Sanjin. 'But with my Bosnian currency all I can buy is bread and newspapers. They will not even give you cigarettes for Bosnian dinars. People like us survive on the United Nations parcels.' Sanjin insists he is 'quite lucky' and lists the reasons why.

He has a salary he can use to buy bread and pay rent to the council for his flat. He stockpiled wood in the basement before the war started in earnest and bought a wood-burning stove. His roof is intact. Water and electricity were reconnected last week. He has received 13 UN food parcels, containing precious supplies of dried milk, vegetable oil and canned fish. His Muslim mother receives food parcels from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and gives most of the contents to his four-year-old twin boys.

'Life is better now. In the winter I walked two miles every day to get water at a spring when there was none in the city. I was walking through heavy shelling at a time when many people got killed looking for water. I used to drag it home, drink a coffee and my wife would say it was all used up washing clothes, and we would fight.'

Some businesses in Sarajevo have never shut down, even in the direst moments of the war. Among them is Sarejevo's brewery, built by Austrians in 1864. The clock in the red-brick tower stopped at five minutes to 10 in May, during the first heavy bombardment. More than 100 shells have landed on the plant since then. A staff of 1,200 is down to 120.

'We were the fourth biggest brewery in Yugoslavia before the war,' said Ferid Pasovic, the company manager. 'Now we produce only 500,000 bottles a month. The Serbs seized 90 per cent of our raw materials and equipment.'

The daily newspaper, Oslobodenje, is another survivor. The high-rise office in New Sarajevo long ago became a grisly blackened shell. But the printers in the basement have never failed to produce an edition, even when they were working by candlelight under heavy artillery fire.

'We are actually one of the few businesses in Sarajevo which can still pay its employees out of earnings,' said Gordana Knezevic, the deputy editor, an ethnic Serb, as she sipped coffee in the freezing editorial office in the old town.

A book could and almost certainly will be written about Oslobodenje's struggle to survive a year of war and siege; about the two journalists in Sarajevo who were killed by sniper fire driving from the editorial office to the printers; about the correspondent in Zvornik who was executed at his typewriter by the Serbs when they overran the eastern Bosnian town; about the journalists who listen on ham radios each day trying to pick up reports from their correspondent in Zagreb; and about Gordana, who remained at her post in a city where it is not easy to be a Serb.

'We never thought of ourselves as miracle workers because it was not a job any of us chose,' Gordana says. 'When your country is attacked you do what you have to do, or lose your country, your identity and your neighbours.'

Oslobodenje has survived thanks also to tremendous international help. A French convoy delivered six months' worth of paper. New equipment was donated by Agence France-Presse.

'And no foreign journalists leave Sarajevo without giving us their batteries,' Gordana added. 'We are all surprised we have survived the winter, and with the fact that we have survived comes hope. Everyone predicted 100,000 deaths in Sarajevo. I suppose we just got used to living off bread and macaroni.'

Of the 300,000 or so surviving inhabitants of Sarajevo, perhaps 60,000, about a fifth, are ethnic Serbs. At the beginning of the fighting many left for Serbia proper and many others joined the Bosnian Serb forces besieging the city, training mortars and rifles on streets, homes and hospitals they once shared with Muslims and Croats.

The city's well-known ethnic tolerance has been stretched by remorseless bombardment, hunger, graves filling up municipal parks and sports stadiums, and the haunting images on the television screen of children lying twitching and bleeding in the street, victims of snipers' bullets. Yet the tradition of tolerance holds to a surprising degree.

'The only thing not killed off in this city is our common life,' said Gordana. 'Serbs like me who have stayed in the city are anti-fascists, in the sense that we were not nationalists before the war and are not now.'

Katica shares her precious chicken eggs with an elderly Serbian brother-in-law who lives in the flat downstairs. Last weekend they pooled resources to buy a cock. Sanjin the policeman still shares his beat with Branimir, an ethnic Serb. 'At the beginning of the war Serbian flats were constantly searched for weapons,' Branimir said. 'But this has died down now. In many ways law and order is coming back.' Branimir says he is not bothered by being sent regularly to the front line to fight fellow Serbs besieging the city. 'I may be the same nationality as them but I am not of the same way of thinking.'

Branko, 23, is an ethnic Serb in the Bosnian army, fighting in a unit nicknamed 'the mujahedin' on account of its unusually high proportion of Orthodox Serbs. His father lives in the Serb-controlled sector of the city of Grbavica.

'I just could not leave the city where I grew up and where all my friends live,' he said. Two weeks ago Branko and the 'mujahedin' spent several days under intense Serbian shelling on the western approach to the city, successfully repelling a tank and infantry assault on the strategic suburb of Stup.

One of the handful of pregnant women at Sarajevo's maternity clinic is 20-year-old Maria Darovic, also an ethnic Serb. Before the war, the clinic delivered 40 babies a day. Now there are two or three. Few couples will risk bringing a child into a world where neither food, warmth nor life are guaranteed.

The hospital, in the city's Kosevo district, has taken several direct hits from tank grenades and for long periods there was no water. For a time even new-born babies were not washed. Today the conditions are a mite better, though Maria has to make do with spartan rations - macaroni, rice, bread, and a cup of milk every three days. There is no meat, fruit or vegetables.

'My baby is already smaller than it should be on account of the food,' Maria complains. She lost her family home when she fled Serb-held Grbavica by night to join her Muslim husband in Sarajevo and since then has hardly seen him - he is always on the front line. But still she has no regrets about the pregnancy. Even in Sarajevo, one year on, the yearning to live and let live is undimmed.

'I decided this war is being waged against marriages like mine,' said Maria. 'That is why I want the baby.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments