Death in Sarajevo

A. M. Rosenthal

December 02, 1992|By A. M. Rosenthal

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- BUT if the water is cut fo days and weeks, how do you get some to drink and wash? Does your wife have to go out and stand at a tap?

For a moment I thought that the Bosnian official driving us through the streets while we crouched low against the snipers had not heard. But he had.

He replied in sentences with such long pauses between them that they seemed almost different conversations.

"No. She does not. She does not go out. She is dead. Fifty-seven days, killed by a shell. Over there. It is a war. It will end. Ten, 15 years."

Something has ended already. Sarajevo has died, twice. The shells of Bosnian-Serbian artillery, the endless pop-pop of snipers in the hills firing at human beings in the streets, have killed Sarajevo as a living city. Ghosts are left -- ghosts of closed shops, blasted office buildings, pocked homes, listless walkers in shattered streets.

The idea of Sarajevo -- that has died too. Its death will bring years of war to what once was Yugoslavia and most likely will spread wider and deeper in the Balkans.

The idea simply was that people of different religions and backgrounds swept up in the same space on Earth by history, migration, war, conquest, whatever, could actually work out political and human understandings that would permit them to forgo slaughtering each other and their nations.

The people of the city, those who could not break through the Serbian siege, are being suitably punished for ever cherishing Sarajevo or the strange idea for which it stood and lived. Later -- tomorrow, the next day, another column -- there will be time enough to think through where justice lies in this death of the city and the rending of a whole nation -- if it matters.

For Bosnia's Muslims, the truth is that the Serbs, maddened by dreams of control over the entire hodgepodge that was the Yugoslav nation, slaughtered the Muslims, burned them out, imprisoned them -- all to erase in Bosnia any vestige of Muslim separateness or memory.

For the Serbs, in Bosnia and in Serbia, the truth was that it was their Bosnia as well as the Muslims', but no, the Muslims would not have it that way and so schemed to create an independent country that would subjugate Serbs to Muslim domination.

For this difference in vision more than 100,000 people have died, mostly Bosnian Muslims, and a million or more Bosnians, Serbs, Croats are living as refugees, or praying that they are lucky enough to become refugees.

Scores of thousands of others are shivering in Serbian or Muslim prison camps, not believing that freedom is at hand but knowing that the cold death-bringing weather most certainly is.

Some things are clear. The Bosnian Muslims are the greatest sufferers by far. But hundreds of thousands of Serbs have fled their Bosnian homes and also wander in bitter search of home and bowl. It is man-made disaster. It is a war not of religion but of hatred, deliberately spread by the leaders of the nations of the old Yugoslavia.

Most of them -- not including the president of Muslim Bosnia -- were Communist Party hacks. They understood that hate and ethnic fear were as good as communism to keep them in office. They were the people who brought devastation to the parts of the old Yugoslavia as they helped Tito bring tyranny to the whole of it. If there is a hero among them, that fellow is hiding.

Should the West -- meaning the United States -- try to help effectively, which would mean military as well as humanitarian help? Or is it simply a reality that hatred and blood feud are not near running themselves out and that the best thing to do is provide food and medicine and then discreetly walk away?

But there will be another day to talk about that. Right now, in decent respect for the people who survive in Sarajevo, it is more appropriate to talk about the condition of their lives.

The condition is fear.

God knows how many shells and bullets crack into this city every day. And of course only God knows which of the shells and the bullets is destined for which person and when it will arrive.

Can the sniper really see you, even your face? The soldiers who fire the artillery shells may not see you, but can they really see your car? And if they cannot see you or your car, will you be killed by someone who does not even know that you are there?

Bravado is not armor. President Alija Izetbegovic stands facing the National Library, showing the ruin to Elie Wiesel, who has come to witness. Somebody points out that they are all in clear view of the very gunners who blasted the library and suggests that maybe they ought to duck out. Everybody does.

Sarajevo fear starts long before arrival. We were able to fly into Sarajevo because Wiesel's voice, determination and reputation moved U.N. officials, Serbs and Bosnians to give permission.

They all said they would do their best to spread the word along the line of flight not to shoot at the U.N. plane. But of course it occurred to everybody to wonder whether the instructions got to every teen-age irregular with a shoulder launcher and whether the notice would be a barrier to shooting or an attraction.

U.N. officers said they could not answer that question. But they did provide flak jackets and helmets. They told us not to move anywhere without them. They took us in armored cars from airport to the city.

We saw along the way that the people of Sarajevo had no flak jackets, helmets or armored cars. Their leaders had not thought to provide them while they worked out Yugoslavia's destiny.

Neither did the people have something even more important in Sarajevo, the one sure guarantee of continued life -- passage out.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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