The Game Of Survival

In Sarajevo, U.N. Warehouses are nearly empty, but people don't seem very hungry. There's no electricity, but residents unhook their car batteries at night to run their television sets. In between snatches of locally dubbed CNN and subtitled re-runs of Schwarzenegger and Van Damme movies, they might catch a commercial on TV Bill, such as the one for At-Mahir Pizza: "For the best pizza in town, delivered in 15 minutes, call 531-532." Call? No problem; the government has installed a satellite earth station, rumored to be hidden in a roofless building somewhere, so phone service is excellent within Sarajevo-and even to "free Bosnia" outside the Serb siege lines. At-Mahir's uses bullet-pocked, wind-shield-shattered cars to deliver pizzas that arrive piping hot, in Croatian-made cardboard pizza cartons, smuggled through the tunnel under the city's airport.

After years of futilely waiting for the West to rescue them, Sarajevans have learned to depend on themselves. They have little choice: Serbs have grounded the U.N. airlift for more than three months and relegated NATO airstrikes to a historic footnote. (Late last week the Serbs even took a potshot at a chopper carrying Carl Bildt, the new European Union mediator.) Atop U.N. official all but concedes the international community has given up. "The Bosnians have to say we're doing nothing," he says, while mortar shells explode outside his open window. "That happens to be true. Yesterday we played chess all day in here."

Sarajevans play a different game--called survival. In the absence of U.N. aid, almost every aspect of their lives has an improvisational feel. Dignitaries go in or out of the city by a narrow mountain track under Serb guns; place names on the Mount Igman route, such as Dead Man's Corner, explain the risks. Travelers without armored cars had best walk. Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic complained recently that he got his best shoes muddy on the hike down. Most innovation comes from ordinary folks. During a storm last week, many funneled water from roof and street gutters into buckets. The absence of traditional foodstuffs has given rise to new recipes. There's meatloaf--stale bread cabs, onions and U.N. yeast; or an increasingly popular cocktail, made from rose petals, lemon juice and water left to ferment in the sun a couple of days.

In many ways, Sarajevo's travails are worse than ever--and yet the city seems much better off than it was when Western cargo planes brimming with aid landed 20 times a day. Sniping and shelling against civilians has picked up again, but people are more adept at protecting themselves. Instead of closing, cafes have moved to basements. Bread lines have gone indoors, and people gather water behind sandbagged leantos. PAZI SNAJPER (BEWARE OF SNIPERS) signs everywhere warn of angles of fire, and most people can negotiate them safely; kids sometimes make a sport of it, forcing Ismet Cengic, a municipal official, to order them off the streets recently. (Frustrated, Serb shooters made target practice of people in their beds at Kosevo Hospital.)

In the city's back alleys, children play a game called "The U.N., the aid worker and the victim." One kid falls down from an imaginary blast, a second runs to help him, and the "U.N." stands by and watches. This game is too real. Not long ago, 9-year-old Sidbela Zimic, who had blond hair to her waist and a chipped front milk tooth, stepped into the tiny playground behind her apartment building when a shell landed, killing her and three other children. A day later, another playground took a direct hit-two more dead kids. Sidbela's father, Sabrija Zimic, a Bosnian army officer, brought his wife and two children home to Sarajevo from Croatian refugee camps last year. Despite his loss, he doesn't regret that decision. "We're here to share our destiny together," he says. "There's no question now of running away; the only solution is to defend ourselves--and to win." Or, at least, to do what it takes to stay alive.