Sarajevo's siege is a year old today 11,000 have died along with dream of a united nation

April 06, 1993|By John F. Burns | John F. Burns,New York Times News Service

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- Determined to find something for her four young children to eat, Stanka Voloder set out one day last week and walked 5 miles to the barbed-wire perimeter of the United Nations headquarters here to rummage through the garbage.

After a while, she found three rotting potatoes and an onion, walked home to the Bistrik district in the city center and cooked her treasures over a wood fire.

As she told her story later, Mrs. Voloder broke down in tears.

"Oh help me, please help me," she said over and over as she stood in Sarajevo's central market, clutching a bedroll wrapped in plastic and stamped with the blue-and-yellow flag of the European Community. The bedroll was part of a handout of relief supplies to families in Bistrik, and Mrs. Voloder was hoping somebody would buy it for 10 German marks, about $6.50, so that she could buy more food.

Today, this besieged city marks the first anniversary of the attack that most people regard as the first volley of the brutal war here, a burst of Serbian sniper fire from a third-floor window of the Holiday Inn that killed several people in a crowd demonstrating for peace and national unity outside the Bosnian Parliament.

The shots were aimed at destroying a society, just like the gunfire that cut down Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife on June 28, 1914 (about a mile from where the Holiday Inn now stands) and set off the train of events that led to World War I.

But the Sarajevo that emerged from World War I and from World War II, when it was occupied by Nazi forces, suffered only mild physical damage in comparison with the cataclysm wrought by the Serbian siege of the last year.

In a city with a population of 380,000, estimates indicate that more than 11,000 Bosnians have been killed and 50,000 have been injured -- making one of every six residents a casualty.

No building unscathed

Virtually no building of consequence has escaped heavy damage or ruin. Even people who have lived here throughout the siege have difficulty grasping the extent of the destruction when they get the rare chance to travel across the city by car. Most public and private transportation has disappeared.

"My God, the city is destroyed," Dr. Sanja Besarovic, a surgeon at Kosevo Hospital, the city's main medical complex, said as a friend drove her to a clinic in the city's heavily bombarded western district on a recent afternoon.

Working shifts that often stretched to 24 hours and walking home to her town house near the hospital on her days off, Ms. Besarovic had been confined over the last year to a small area of the city.

Nothing she had seen on the nights when there was electrical power in the hospital to watch the television news had prepared her for the miles of apartment buildings and hotels, corporate headquarters and government buildings punctured by shellfire and burned out by unchecked fire.

After months of heavy shelling and gunfire from Serbian nationalists' batteries on the surrounding mountains, the scale of destruction is so great that many residents have abandoned thoughts of how the city could be rebuilt. They only think of how to escape.

Though most countries in Europe are tightening their immigration controls to keep out a flood of more than 1.6 million Bosnian refugees, virtually everyone here who speaks with foreigners, from lawyers to cab drivers, asks sooner or later about help in getting resettled abroad.

In the meantime, surviving is a full-time preoccupation in a city where it has become commonplace to say that Sarajevo has been bombarded back into the Middle Ages. Mrs. Voloder's husband spends weeks at a time as a draftee "at the front," crouching in sodden trenches on Trebevic Mountain guarding against Serbian infantry attacks.

She and tens of thousands of people in Sarajevo -- and others like them all across this devastated republic -- spend their days struggling to summon up the energy and ingenuity for a dispiriting round of foraging for food, water and firewood.

"I'm alive"

For most people, about the only thing left to celebrate is that they are still alive, even if many of their relatives and friends are not. "Ziv sam," meaning "I'm alive," has become a sort of mantra, a common way of punctuating conversations about how all else -- home, job, hope -- has been lost.

Statistically, at least in Sarajevo and in other predominantly Muslim centers under siege in Bosnia, life is a fragile thing, easily lost in an instant to a sniper's bullet or a shell.

For now, the Serbian nationalist forces are mostly resting in their bunkers beside their artillery pieces, tanks, mortars and anti-aircraft machine-guns, more or less observing a cease-fire that their leaders declared across Bosnia nine days ago.

On Sunday, at least five civilians were killed by sniper fire, including one old man who lay in the morgue with a gaping bullet hole in his neck, just above his neatly knotted tie.

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