In Sarajevo, 'it looks like peace but it is still war'

May 02, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- The white blossoms of plum trees now dot the surrounding hills instead of the smoke of artillery blasts, and the few gunshots that occasionally crackle through the air are often drowned out by the roar of a NATO jet.

Water runs from the tap a few hours a day, and most of the time there is electricity. Spring gardens are sprouting fresh vegetables. The trams are running. And the price of such precious items as sugar and coffee has come down.

But the siege of Sarajevo continues. Its 300,000 residents remain prisoners, still dependent on airlifted supplies, United Nations demands and, ultimately, the continued peaceful behavior of the Serbian armies that continue to encircle the city.

"It looks like peace but it is still war," says Vladimir Jovanic, a 20-year-old architecture student. "The problem before was not just the shelling. It was the people. You can look at them on the trams and see how they have changed from before the war. It is in their faces. And every one of us still wants to get out."

But, yes, he says, it is a relief no longer to worry about shells screaming overhead, sometimes hundreds of them a day, or snipers firing into the streets.

Occasionally a sniper still strikes. Two men were shot and wounded a week ago. But such incidents are rare enough that no one thinks twice about strolling any street.

In Dobrinja, a neighborhood surrounded on three sides by Serbian forces, people once traveled through trenches or not at all. Now they fill the sidewalks on sunny days, or tend the gardens that seem to cover every open tract of land in the city.

In former fields of fire, old women in scarves stoop with plastic bags in hand, plucking dandelion greens for salads.

But the people most dramatically affected by the cease-fire may be those who lived in the hills a few miles from the city center. On one of the rutted dirt lanes leading north to the now-quiet battlefront on Zuc Hill, the scores of homes scattered across open meadows and valleys took a pounding in almost every bombardment. Fields and pastures here are pocked and scorched from shell impacts. Nearly every home has been blown apart. Virtually all are roofless. Some have only the stumps of walls. Others have been reduced to piles of bricks and mortar. There isn't a glass window intact for miles.

Yet residents have begun to return. Ermina Metrlic stands outside a house tending a stubborn cow that keeps straying into a patch of onions in her vast vegetable garden.

The Metrlics have survived with two cows and some chickens. Now they have patched the walls of their cinder-block home and covered part of the roof with plastic. Smoke from a wood stove pours from a small pipe sticking out of a side wall.

"The summer will be good, because with what we have planted we will have plenty to eat," Mrs. Metrlic says. "The soldiers are not shooting down into this valley any more, so we can let our cows graze and know they will not be killed. We have milk from them, and eggs from our hens."

Peace that could end

But Ms. Metrlic knows this fragile peace could end at any moment. And even if the hills stay quiet, she expects more rough times as long as the Serbs keep the city cut off from the rest of the world.

"We will try to fix our house while the weather is good," she says. "But if next winter comes and nothing here is changed, then it will be hard for us again."

Rebuilding will be hard all over town. Even apart from the thousands of destroyed buildings and homes, the city needs an estimated $125 million to repair its infrastructure. Much of the water system and power network remain damaged.

One can get an idea of the magnitude of the task by spending a few hours with Robert Rowe, the gas project manager for the U.S.-based International Rescue Committee.

Mr. Rowe, who recently completed work on a master's degree in international politics at Morgan State University, is overseeing reconstruction of Sarajevo's natural gas network. The task is complicated by the thousands of people who, desperate for heat and cooking fuel during the days without electricity, tapped into the gas system on their own. They often used garden hoses and plumbing fixtures. These free-lance efforts added 30,000 to 50,000 customers to a system that served only 20,000 before the war.

Not only are the rigs dangerous -- 30 people have been killed in gas explosions during the past two years -- they're wasteful.

"BG&E would not expect to have more than 1 percent losses from inefficiency," Mr. Rowe says. "Here, as a conservative figure, we say that at least 30 percent of the gas is wasted, and the real figure is more like 50 percent."

Mr. Rowe hopes to replace up to 25,000 of these homemade systems by the end of the summer, but that won't be easy with the prewar work force of 350 now down to 50. Most of the departures have been pipefitters and installers, and hiring men to fill the vacancies is virtually out of the question. Able-bodied men must serve in the Bosnian army.

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