One day in Sarajevo: The movies, profiteers, dinner at Club Yez, and dreams of family and peace

February 12, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina--The day begins, as always, with the gravediggers.

Eight of them hack open the snowy earth with picks and shovels to bury the latest evidence of war. They like to finish early, while the morning fog still covers the snipers asleep in the hills, and today they are ahead of the game -- 17 deep and rectangular pits are already open to the sky.

If the men are lucky, this supply of empty graves could last into the next week, although some are already filling with ground water and will have to be bailed. But the men press on.

"You always have to keep digging," Hashim Muharemovic explains, leaning on his shovel for a moment. "There may be a busy day, a busy week."

The assurance of work is one benefit of the gravedigger's occupation. On some days it is finished quickly. But the gravediggers must rise early and work frantically on days like last Saturday when a mortar shell slammed into the city's open-air market, killing 68 people.

For the 68, life's horrifying routine under siege was over. The rest of Sarajevo's 300,000 people would drag themselves awake for another 24 hours of under the guns of the Bosnian Serb army -- a siege that has gone on for almost two years and may or may not derive relief from the world's outrage over last Saturday's market attack.

As far as most Sarajevans are concerned, there is no end in sight, no matter what the world says about ultimatums and NATO air strikes. Only action will change their minds.

Nor do they have any confidence in cease-fire agreements with the Serbs. They've all been broken in the past.

With an estimated 10,000 killed and 57,000 wounded, according to the Bosnian government, roughly one in every five of the city's wartime residents has become a casualty.

That makes Sarajevo neither the deadliest nor longest siege in history. Leningrad claims those grisly distinctions, losing more than a million people during 900 days in World War II.

Yet, there has never been a siege quite like Sarajevo. The city's struggle has played regularly to a worldwide audience. The dominant TV images are pools of blood and people scrambling (( for cover, but more commonplace scenes are equally compelling. They feature weary, hungry people wavering between calm and madness as they wait for the odds to track them down.

With no hope of leaving, they go about daily chores on a ruined cityscape that smells of smoke, dampness and moldering garbage. The hammering of shot and shell is their lullaby and wake-up call, and at this time of year there is virtually no escape from the bitter cold.

In the first hour of daylight the sun burns away the last of the mist, and the shooting starts again. By dusk the mourners are back in the cemetery, placing flowers and kneeling in a muddy field where children once played soccer. Death in its abundance is even devouring the playgrounds.

Cigarette currency

But to find Sarajevo's greatest force of life during this war you'll have to go west, to the opposite end of town. You can tell it's a vital place by the crowd of a hundred people clamoring outside the front gate at midmorning. They push and shove, some clutching empty plastic bags in anticipation.

They've come to the cigarette factory.

Forget the conventional wisdom about an army traveling on its stomach. The defending force of Sarajevo travels on its lungs, as does the entire demoralized population.

"If the cigarette factory is ever destroyed," says Slobodan Kosanovic, a systems engineer, "the war is over,"

He is only half-joking. And he is smoking a cigarette.

This means that the factory is operated with all the efficiency, and sometimes secrecy, of a munitions plant. Manager Lojo Sefik answers questions with great reluctance. He takes his visitors to a boardroom destroyed by a recent mortar shell, and says, "Every time there is publicity we are shelled again."

But, yes, he says proudly, his company is important. "I think that the smokers here [that's almost everybody except Mr. Sefik, a non-smoker] would become crazy without cigarettes."

When asked about wartime production levels, Mr. Sefik assumes a grave expression and demurs, muttering something about "military secrets."

But a quick tour of the plant's lower levels, down out of harm's way, reveals bin after bin of shredded tobacco being mechanically shaped and rolled into millions of cigarettes.

The only thing in short supply is packaging. Cigarette packs are now made from soap wrappers, the pages of old books, and the scraps of outdated Yugoslav government forms, some of which are scribbled with handwriting from long before the war.

"It is a bonus of war," a smoker cynically explains. "You get your cigarettes, and you also get a book to read."

Cigarette rations may be the best reason to be in the Bosnian army. Front line troops get two packs a day. Even an off-duty day gets you 10 cigarettes, and only the soldiers get the filtered brand.

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