Sarajevans endure year under siege 'My story is like all the others, very simple and very tragic'

April 06, 1993|By Boston Globe

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- "My story is like all the others, very simple and very tragic," said Jusuf Cikic when he was asked to recall the events of the last year. The same can be said of almost anyone you find on the streets of Sarajevo.

Yesterday was exactly a year since the Serbian artillery on the Olympic ski slopes above Sarajevo began to blast holes in the city. Since then Sarajevo's 350,000 people have learned how to live with death and darkness. They have been killed in their homes or on the street, in breadlines or in the hospital, or while burying their dead. They have passed much of the past 12 months without electricity or running water, heat or public transportation, or without glass in their windows.

They have learned how to crowd into a single room for warmth, or turn their washing machine into a wood stove. They have plugged the shell holes in their homes with plywood, and tried not to notice the soot that begrimes their walls and their clothing.

And they have watched their cosmopolitan, multiethnic society disintegrate and their faith in the West dissolve.

The people of Sarajevo have become experts in street survival, briefing new arrivals on exactly when to sprint, not walk, down the street, how far the snipers were at any given moment, pointing out the freshest shell marks to demonstrate the angle from which danger could come. Crudely lettered signs in the street warn of danger.

Some people, like Jusuf Cikic, do not see the point of telling their stories. Like the majority of people here, he has given up hope in the United Nations or Western governments.

"At the start of the war we had a lot of faith in the West -- in your justice, your democratic traditions," he explained. "But then we began to feel that you were watching TV pictures of our war for entertainment."

Others, like a woman who gave only her first name, Ajsa, are scared of talking: She lives in the direct line of fire from Serb positions half a mile away, and she fears reprisals.

For still others, recalling the year is a form of catharsis.

"It's nice talking to a normal person," said Amra Becirspahic. Like nearly everyone in this city does, Amra, 33, chain-smoked as she told her story. As she did, her 2-year-old daughter, Ajla, brushed the hair of her uncle, a soldier in the Bosnian army.

Since last May, Amra has been living with her husband, Djevad, and her daughter in a single room in her parents' apartment. Her mother, father and another sister, plus her brother when he is back from the front, live in the apartment's other room. It is unheated and unlighted, though for the last week they have had water "several times," she said.

The upper floors of their small building have been badly damaged by shells. On the street outside a shabbily dressed boy scavenged for firewood.

Until the war started, Amra and her husband lived with Ajla in an apartment in one of the nicest parts of the city. She worked for a computer firm; he was a technician in a hospital on the edge of the city. The family had lots of Serb friends.

But for Amra, as for many other Sarajevans, the start of the war was the end of their world. Many say the same thing: If they survive the siege, they are leaving Sarajevo forever. Officially the Bosnian government says it is determined to preserve their republic's unique multiethnic mix. Amra says this is impossible.

"I couldn't sit in a cafe here or work in an office and wonder all the time if the man next to me had been shooting at me during the war," she said. "And people who really suffered, whose loved ones were killed, will never be able to forgive," she said. "My parents hate Serbs now. I just feel disgust."

Ajsa's son Samir, a police officer, also has his doubts about the future. Many of his family have disappeared without a trace from an area "ethnically cleansed" by the Serbs.

"It'll be very very difficult to live together," he said as a mixed Serb-Croat friend, Igor, listened. "It will take a very long time."

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