Welcome to hell: The photographer Tom Stoddart watched the people of Sarajevo clinging to daily life in constant danger of death

Liz Jobey
Saturday 10 October 1992 23:02

'IT'S JUST extraordinary, watching people's psychological preparation before crossing this 50 metres of open ground thinking they're going to die. Lovers hold hands and dash across together; the men have this macho thing, walking upright and waving to the Serbs in the hills; some proud women march across in defiance; but other people spend literally minutes just psyching themselves up before they run, heads down. And the old people, of course. So many old people have died here because they just can't move fast enough. More than anywhere I've been, this is a sniper's war.'

This is the photographer Tom Stoddart describing what has become known as 'snipers' alley', the most dangerous stretch of street in Sarajevo. He spent two and a half weeks in the city, finding out and photographing how ordinary people were managing to exist in the war that has made this one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

He flew to Split, bought a car and drove to Ilidja, the last Serb-held suburb outside Sarajevo, from which he made the hair-raising run along the airport road into the city. ' 'Don't go there, the Muslims will eat you' - the soldiers tell you things like that. You just drive as fast as you can. Plenty of people have been killed in the crossfire along this road. We heard that the Serb soldiers get a dollars 500 bounty for hitting a journalist.' At the entrance to the city is a wall inscribed with graffiti: 'Welcome to hell.'

Sarajevo is a small city - one road through the centre, about 10 minutes by car from one end to the other. The day begins early: the fighters sleep after a busy night, the women and old people emerge from their cellars and rat holes and set off to the market, the round of funerals begins at the cemetery, which has become a terrible symbol of the city's tragedy. Lion Park used to be a place for strolling couples and walking the dog; now it is an ever- expanding area of newly turned graves, dug out on a production line, each Christian grave planted with a simple cross. When the rain turns the earth into a quagmire, it is a scene comparable only to the Somme.

'You can gauge the intensity of the fighting by the number of funerals,' Stoddart explains. 'On average 10 a day, but on the worst day there were 45. For anyone coming there for the first time, it's a recurring image - the graves, the sound of the women wailing, the sight of an old man, just standing in bewilderment.

'But Sarajevo is a modern town. Don't forget, the Winter Olympics were held there in 1984. You see these women at the market buying herbs, grass, anything that will make a stew, but they're dressed like Home Counties women - pearls and smart clothes - still haggling for the best bargain. Everybody's very clean, very proud. The bakery has managed to stay open, the newspaper has kept going, but hardly anybody goes to work. The able-bodied men do a shift system at the front, the women concentrate on fetching food and water, and the children - the children have already absorbed all the influences of war. Their games of goodies and baddies are Bosnians and Serbs, they've all got make-believe guns, and they re-enact battles between apartment blocks. The little girls pretend to be nurses bandaging the wounded. The boys play with the remains of grenades and know the different sizes of shells - even 10-year-olds can tell by the sound an incoming shell makes. The seeds of hatred are already planted quite firmly.'

There are Serbs in Sarajevo, proud to have remained fighting on the side of the Muslims. Some of the doctors working in the overrun hospital are Serbian. The hospital operates a 'triage' system of entry, vetting the wounded for those who will respond to immediate treatment, and those beyond help. Much of the time there is no electricity, so no X-rays can be carried out and the elevators don't work; there is little water, few drugs, no clean linen, too much blood. 'They are skilled, but overwhelmed,' Stoddart says, 'and of course the children are the worst. I saw them terribly burnt, some with limbs amputated, being held by their mothers. You see amazing tenderness amongst all this, people sharing anything they've got - food, water - being brought together like the Blitz.'

Stoddart spent three days in the hospital after being badly injured while crossing a stretch of open ground. The mothers would like their children safe, he says, but not many people want to leave. 'There's a sense they're fighting to the bitter end. God knows what will happen when the winter comes.' Liz Jobey

Tom Stoddart's photographs will be shown at the Association Gallery, 9/10 Domingo Street, London EC1 from 4-11 November.

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