Sarajevo: Looking For Escape Routes

AFTER MONTHS OF HIDING out in friends' apartments to dodge conscription into the Bosnian army, "Milorad," 38, made his move two days before Christmas. He and four other Serbs paid a fixer $1,200 each for the privilege of using an escape route called the "rat's canal." It took them four hours of crawling through the fetid sewer to cross from central Sarajevo to Serb-held Grbavica, across the River Miljacka. At the end, a veza -- connection -- was waiting in a car. Now Milorad sits in Belgrade, waiting for a Canadian visa and hoping his wife can use her kidney disease as an excuse to get on a relief convoy out of Sarajevo. He counts himself lucky: last month, he says, a group of six doctors and nurses were caught escaping through the rat's canal, and now it's closed. "This is a wretched country," he says. "You should flee as far as possible."

To the Bosnian government, that's treason. There would be no city to defend if Sarajevo's population left. Denial Cengic, a 23-year-old soldier who saw a Serb and his Muslim girlfriend shot down last year as they tried to elope across the front lines, observes that they "deserved it." And yet thousands of Sarajevans attended the memorial service. "In the beginning, we judged people who escaped as traitors," says Srdjan Vuletic, a filmmaker who chose not to pull strings and flee. "That was wrong. People are afraid, and everyone has the right to decide to stay or to leave." A few can take the high road out: 13-year-old diarist Zlata Filipovic and her family had both the means and the luck to flee. But many others stoop to bribes and risk prison or worse. It's Sarajevo's defining decision, the thing everyone talks about. Indeed, sometimes it seems there are only two; stories in Sarajevo: tales of survival and tales of escape.

In their desperation, many risk parting with loved ones. "Svetozar," an electrical engineer, sent his reluctant wife out early in the war. She in turn arranged his escape last December. Speaking to him in open code over a government run ham radio, she said: "We might be able to see each other soon", So he was ready when a mysterious stranger appeared and told him to pack his pockets. He grabbed two pictures of his wife and swallowed a tranquilizer. Even so, he was sweating and shaking when his connection showed him the way across a no man's land between Serb and Muslim positions. "Don't make any wrong turns," the fixer told him. "Everywhere around is mined."

Some professions offer relatively easy escape routes. Last year 13 journalists used their coveted UNPROFOR press Cards to fly to Croatia for an alleged story; they never came back. Sretko Maslesa, a Serb who worked for NEWSWEEK in Sarajevo as an interpreter, used his press card to flee to Belgrade last summer, leaving his wife behind. His wife later feigned illness so she could get out on a rare medical-evacuation convoy. Sretko, who always professed belief in the Bosnian multiethnic ideal, now works for a Swiss import-export company in Belgrade. He confided recently that his job now is to help smuggle train-loads of oil into Serbia through Greece and Macedonia -- in defiance of international sanctions. "The war changed me," he said in Belgrade. "I just want to forget about Sarajevo and make a lot of money." Many of his old friends in Sarajevo have no quarrel with him for his actions. "What a lucky guy he is," said one.

While it sometimes seems that everyone is scheming to get out, more than a few Bosnians have escaped into Sarajevo. Haris Pasovic, a 32-year-old theater director who was caught abroad when the war began, made the 200-yard dash across the divided airport under Serb sniper fire, heading in the wrong direction. Since then Pasovic has directed or produced 10 plays and a film festival. "It is irrational from the outside, but from here, it makes perfect sense," he says. "Many have asked me, "Why have a film festival in the middle of a war?' But they have it backwards. The question is, "Why have a war in the middle of a film festival?'"

Such choices can elevate survival to the level of heroism. Zlatza's aunt Mehida Filipovic, a prominent professor of orthodontics, gave all her money to a son when he left the city to attend university. Every day she struggles to heat her apartment and find food, but she also volunteers with a group that counsels rape victims. Filmmaker Vuletic lives on the meager relief meals everyone gets. For a time he volunteered at a hospital, where his job was to help dispose of victims' limbs. Out of that has come his latest film: "I Burned Legs."

The urge to escape such horror is understandable. But it is the determination of those Sarajevans who survive -- and more -- that has won the attention of the West.