Sarajevo -- As I prepare for my first winter in Sarajevo, my heart goes out to those who are now dreading their third in this war. Last spring they had hope. The end of the shelling after the market massacre in March, improvements in utilities and the opening of a road into the city brought a semblance of normality to Sarajevo. People socialized over coffee or beer in the local cafes, and the markets were full of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
All that has changed. The increase in sniping over the past month, the cutting of electricity, water and gas, and the closing of the one road into the city have suffocated any sense of hope allowed to bloom last spring.
Sarajevo's residents spend their days looking for wood and food, and bracing themselves for the mental challenges of the dark cold to come.
At Catholic Relief Services, the chill of the morning has us hurrying to knock holes in our walls to vent the handmade tin stoves bought recently. Staffers scavenge for hose to run gas to the stoves and look for wood for days when the gas is turned off.
CRS is one of the few relief agencies in Sarajevo, and my responsibilities include overseeing distribution of more than $3.1 million in food and winter clothing to children, refugees and others, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
The office is in a 30-story building that used to be the city's finest. Now our tower has only five usable floors -- above us there is nothing but a concrete and metal shell.
From my window, I look out on the no-man's land that runs through the center of town and see a Serbian flag on the other side. Several kilometers beyond, I can see the ski lifts of Mount Bjelasnica, which was host to the alpine events at the 1984 Winter Olympics.
An Olympics long gone
Ten years later, the Olympian ideals of fellowship and goodwill have given way to violence and fear. I now drive by remnants of the hockey and speed skating rinks in CRS' armored Land Rover. It looks more like a tank than a car, but even its tTC 2-centimeter steel walls cannot stop all the ammunition of the warring parties. We have been lucky.
Only a few weeks ago, our neighbors at the World Health Organization, two floors below, had the back window of their van shot out by a sniper firing from a burned-out building a mere 200 meters away.
My apartment is only three-quarters of a mile from the office, so I can walk or, depending on the snipers, run to work in the morning. Its comfortable furnishings are indicative of the wealth the city possessed before the war. Fortunately, all of my windows are intact, aside from the few small shrapnel and bullet holes, which have been easily patched.
I have managed to continue my running despite the less than optimal training conditions. Mostly, I run on the track in the stadium where the local high school trains.
Two days ago, the pinging of snipers' bullets off the metal railing in the bleachers provided motivation for one of my fastest 400 meters since high school days.
Upon returning home sweaty and tired, I am greeted by neighborhood children who always ask how many kilometers I have managed today.
Improvements in the water system mean that now I get water every second or third morning for two hours -- long enough to fill my collection of buckets, jars and pots.
Usually, electricity is off for 24 hours and on for seven. Sometimes it comes in the evening when I need it, but more often it comes in the middle of the night or during the day while I am at work.
Either way, it's never on long enough to keep my refrigerator cool, making fresh food a rare treat. Sometimes electricity is off in the whole city, which means that the water pumping station does not work. I am lucky because I can send a vehicle and driver to fill my collection of buckets at one of the city's wells. The other 325,000 Sarajevans do not have that luxury.
Gas for the stove is generally available, but the valve is controlled by the Serbs, who sometimes turn it off. The thought sends chills through all of us as winter approaches. For dinner I will rely on my reserve of canned beans, tuna, a few cookies and my last precious half jar of peanut butter.
Making the best of it
Despite the hardships, everyone has learned to make the best of what is available. Many nights I am treated to a wonderful three-course meal at the home of Stojanka and Tuefik, Bosnian friends who have become my Sarajevo war parents.
With my United Nations identification card, I can cross Serbian lines and buy rations in other towns in central Bosnia. The food is a welcome addition to Stojanka and Teufik's humanitarian aid diet of bread and beans, while the time and effort I save cooking under these conditions is invaluable to me.
A neighbor in the building does my laundry, keeps the apartment in order and, best of all, makes sure that when water does begin to trickle out of my taps, my buckets get filled.