THE GRAVESTONES IN THE OLD JEWISH cemetery are shaped like sitting lions, perched on a steep hillside looking down on central Sarajevo. Inscribed in both Hebrew and Spanish, they are pocked with bullet and mortar blasts. Underground, bunkers have dislocated the bones of those who fell victim to the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi Holocaust. Now, the most ferociously contested four acres in Bosnia remains a no man's land, where sporadic fighting pierces an otherwise quiet city. Elsewhere in Sarajevo. French and Russian troops separate the two sides; here, where the fighting began nearly two years ago. they don't dare.
The ongoing battle for the old burial plot suggests just how difficult it is to bring a durable peace to Bosnia. Last week, on the very day that Serbian and Muslim political leaders signed an agreement to open Sarajevo to limited civilian traffic, Serbs holding the cemetery brazenly violated the cease-fire, firing a dozen rocket-propelled grenades into an already destroyed house on their side of the front line, only 50 yards away. "Just practicing," said Slavko Aleksis, their black-bearded, long-haired leader, who flies a skull-and-crossbones flag and consults Soldier of Fortune magazine for fashion advice. Alongside the Serbs are 50 Russian mercenaries, Zak Novkovic, 20 (a Serbian-American resident of Bayside, N.Y.), and a Japanese soldier-tourist who speaks no locally known language. Many fighters come from Serbia rather than Bosnia. "Sure, these people have volunteered, and for a very simple reason," says Aleksis. "The fact is that Serbia and Montenegro are first defended on this very line."
That's an exaggeration. But if the Serbs lost the Jewish cemetery, they would lose Grbavica-the one major neighborhood of Sarajevo they still control and the best of their snipers' nests. As a result, the Bosnian army has launched scores of attacks and four major offensives against the cemetery, suffering enormous casualties. (The army won't say how many it has lost there, except that it's more than anywhere else.) The Serbs admit to 40 dead on their side-remarkably high casualties for an army that usually fights civilians and sustains few losses
Soldiers on the Bosnian side are dubious about peace. Positioned only 150 yards from Aleksis's headquarters, they are a mixture of Serbs, Croats and Muslims who all come from the cemetery neighborhood. They are so ill-equipped that only their officers have complete uniforms, but they're confident they can easily take the cemetery now that the Serbs' heavy artillery has withdrawn. And they're advancing their trenches under cover of the cease-fire, say U.N. observers. But lately the two sides have traded more insults than bullets.
Missing from all the bluster is a sense of the other tragedy of the Jewish cemetery. For Sarajevo's small Jewish community nearly eliminated by the Holocaust, the cemetery, founded in 1560, had always been special. David Pardo, 75, remembers as a child paying a visit even, Sabbath. His father would pray over the grave of his own mother-until he joined her after being killed by the Nazis. Until two years ago Pardo could identify four generations of his ancestors' graves. "Now they've dug trenches through the sepulchers, and thrown out the old bones." he says. "I could never go back there again, even if the war ends." In the Balkan war, even the dead can't find peace.