From perspective of Dobrinja, in suburban circle of despair, streets of Life under siege

February 14, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Jurag Petrlic sounds almost wistful as he recalls his first wartime visit to the battered streets of downtown Sarajevo.

He rode there in an armored military vehicle -- "like a voyage inside a coffin," he says with a frown. But when he finally stepped onto the bombed cityscape, he was in wonderland.

"I thought, I am in a normal city again," he says. "The people who live there, they can walk around. They go to markets, to cafes. I envy them."

His description sounds insane, but it is a coldly sober lesson in the relativity of Bosnian horrors. He lives in the Sarajevo suburb of Dobrinja. If Sarajevo is hell on earth, Dobrinja is its innermost circle of despair.

Nearly cut off from the rest of the city by the Bosnian Serb army, Dobrinja can indeed make downtown Sarajevo seem festive by comparison, even if such illusions can get you killed.

Dobrinja's only safe sidewalks are the deep trenches crisscrossing the lawns between apartment buildings. Other lawns have been turned into cemeteries. It's too dangerous to move the bodies farther.

Virtually every building and bridge is cordoned with walls of homemade sandbags, made colorful by the snatches of old clothing used for some of the bags.

And, as Mr. Petrlic well knows, there is no marketplace, no cafe, no place for strolling on a sunny day. Most of the time it is best just to stay indoors. All day long.

"There is only the U.N. building, where people go to pick up their food supplies," says Saric Zijad, who works at the small army headquarters in Dobrinja. "That is the only place to go. Dobrinja is a very dangerous place to be outdoors."

But even this claustrophobic existence is a relative paradise compared to the two awful months at the beginning of the war, when Dobrinja was surrounded by ragged lines of Bosnian Serb tanks, mortar crews and snipers. Worst of all, the Bosnian Serbs swarmed atop Mojmillo, a barren ridge looming outside Dobrinja's windows like the high, grim wall of a prison.

Families stayed mostly in hallways and cellars then. It was dangerous even to stand by a window. A quickly organized militia held off the attackers and eventually turned the corner by acquiring a single anti-tank gun.

In mid-June 1992, the defenders forced the Bosnian Serbs off the hill, re-opening a narrow path to the rest of the city. In the 20 months since, the few thousand residents of Dobrinja have struggled to recapture some of the normal rhythms of their previous lives, and the community's resilience has become one

of Sarajevo's grittiest tales of perseverance.

Lines of fire

For the Petrlic family the challenge is especially hard. They have three fast-growing teen-age boys yearning to cut loose with their friends. They sometimes escape to apartment stairwells, where they gather to talk and strum guitars, although it is almost impossible to find time for themselves alone, or with a date.

But for all their pent-up energy, neither Tomislav, who is 18, Mario, 17, nor Dario, 13, feels much urge to defy the odds by straying outdoors for long.

With all this indoor time on their hands, the Petrlic family has availed itself of some macabre lessons.

By watching through the windows of his home, Mr. Petrlic has become an expert on the lines of fire slashing through his neighborhood. He now has a rough map in his mind of the various killing zones, and his family lives by these boundaries.

"We avoid certain areas now," he says. "We slowly realized the directions the snipers like to shoot from."

There is only one way to verify such findings, short of offering oneself as a target.

"We learned as different people would be killed or wounded," Mr. Petrlic says. "From our balcony you can see people being shot, 20 meters away."

His wife Maria, adds, "People will be out in their garden, preparing their seeds, and they will be shot."

So, even though she'd like to plant onions, carrots and cabbage in the yard as much as anybody stuck on the numbing diet of beans and rice, she does all her gardening in small boxes on their balcony.

Not that the balcony is safe. All the careful studying doesn't help once the shells start flying from the mortar and grenade crews that move around day to day.

LTC The shelling was particularly bad on the January night of the Christian Orthodox New Year, when Bosnian Serb artillery crews celebrated with a rapid round of firing. U.N. officials said Dobrinja was one of the night's two big targets.

Things seemed to be quieting down by the next afternoon, so the youngest son, Dario, walked onto balcony to look around. A shell whistled in, striking the wall of their building one floor up and one apartment over. Fragments rained onto their balcony, ++ tearing into a couch and splitting open Dario's left shoulder.

Two men standing on the ground below were killed. Only a few seconds later a second shell struck on the roof, four floors up. Mario, who was standing just inside the Petrlic's balcony window, still hasn't regained all of his hearing in one ear.

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