Yugoslavs strive for normalcy despite civil war Dubrovnik residents survive with stress

November 03, 1991|By Peter S. Green | Peter S. Green,Special to the Sun

DUBROVNIK, Yugoslavia -- As a burst of machine gun fire rang out from a distant hilltop overlooking Dubrovnik, Marija Sambrailo stood in the door of her crystal and gift shop on the Stradun, the marble-paved main street of this medieval walled city.

Since the Yugoslav federal army began besieging the Croatian town and its handful of defenders Oct. 1, Ms. Sambrailo has had few customers. She made her last sale, a hair band, 10 days ago.

Still, she and the 50,000 other Dubrovnik residents who refuse to abandon their hometown do their best to maintain a sense of normalcy.

"My shop may not be very useful now, but you need to pretend you are living a normal life. Otherwise you go crazy," she said.

Shattered glass from a recent shell litters the gutter at her feet, but residents appear oblivious. They have maintained an unhurried air, showing none of the stress one might imagine with enemy soldiers only a few hundred yards from the city.

They stand about in small groups smoking cigarettes and trading the latest gossip or stroll arm in arm carrying a plastic jug for their daily five-liter ration of fresh water.

Sometimes the calm is suddenly shattered. At midday Thursday, a handful of mortar rounds landed around the new port at Gruz, a mile from the city center. Three people were injured, including a 5-year-old boy. Life stops as those who heard the shots stand still for a moment.

Conversations take place at a slight distance, as many people are unable to bathe for days at a time. But Dubrovnik's women, as well-dressed as those in Rome or Milan, still put on their makeup and don elegant clothes to line up for rations.

The poor and refugees from towns fallen to the advancing Yugoslav army line up at food distribution centers while those with cash wait in front of food shops.

"There's enough food to get by, but you have to be careful with it," Jelka Kerner said as she stood in line.

Many shops still have bread, toilet paper, shoe polish and cookies, but such essentials as fresh vegetables, fruit and even milk have disappeared. Eggs are rationed, and most food arrives on the single ferry each day from Korcula, an island 50 miles distant.

Residents say maintaining a sense of normalcy is the key to surviving the stress of the siege. In the lobby of the Hotel Tirena, a summer resort that now houses 550 refugees five or six to a room, people pace back and forth, talk quietly and chain-smoke, waiting.

Hotel Director Djuro Market has organized a kindergarten in the hotel to keep the children busy and tries to get refugees to help with hotel tasks.

"These are educated, cultured people who normally have jobs. To keep them from going stir-crazy they must have something to do," he said.

Water -- salt and fresh -- has become the key to Dubrovnik's existence. On land Dubrovnik is encircled, and its pumps for drinking water are within easy range of army mortars. By sea, the historic port is blockaded by navy gunships, and the sea is

Dubrovnik's lifeline to the outside world.

"How can you talk about normal life when you have only five liters of water a day? Is that human?" asked Danica Danilovic, a pharmacist.

Fresh water is the hottest topic of conversation. Water sources are guarded jealously. During infrequent rains, residents collect rain in jugs, and everywhere people go, they take empty plastic jugs.

The Adriatic's waters are used for bathing and washing clothes. Despite the brisk fall weather, Dubrovnik's few beaches are dotted with residents soaping and rinsing themselves in the waves. Shampoo, it appears, works up a better lather than soap in the chill brine.

"We wash dishes, clothes, ourselves, everything in the sea," said Kata Brailo as she carried her family's laundry home to dry.

"It is important to do as many normal things as possible. You have to, just to keep going from day to day."

Inside the walls of St John's Fort, on the old harbor, the six-foot thick stone walls that house the city's aquarium have become a favorite bomb shelter. When sirens sound, as many as 2,000 people cram on to cots and chairs set around the fish pools in the high-ceilinged exhibition hall. Wooden boards lean against the glass fish tanks after a shell fell in the nearby harbor, bursting one tank. The aquarium remains functioning, even though the caretakers have run out of fish food and have begun feeding some of the little fish to bigger ones.

"Everything, no matter how useless it might appear during the crisis, must remain as it was before. Dubrovnik must not be a victim of the war," said aquarium administrator Bosilka Boro.

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