Waiting For Spring In Sarajevo

A tardy spring has finally come to Sarajevo-and with it, the illusion of renewal. The trees that once blanketed the city are gone, cut down for firewood. But here and there are flashes of green, as Sarajevans begin planting tiny gardens on their terraces, "Every morning I wake up at 5 a.m. and rush out to see if there's any result," says Senada Kreso, a government press director. Sidewalk cafes have opened up all over town, usually on the shady side of streets to confound snipers, who themselves have decided to give civilians a break--claiming only five to 10 victims a day in a recent week. People look good, slim and often stylish; some blocks are reminiscent of tranquil European avenues.

But the sorry truth of Sarajevo is hard to conceal. The Bosnian capital, and its 380,000 people, have held out against Serbian besiegers for more than a year. The crowded cafes have no food, only coffee and local beer, sometimes smuggled peach brandy. The gardens are being planted to relieve the tedium of relief food, on which everyone depends. And people are slim because there's never enough to eat. "Everyone says, 'You look great now since YOU lost all your money'," says Rishad Sokolovic, a businessman who lost 70 pounds in the past year. Much of the city has been shelled into rubble, with mosques taking the brunt of Serb artillery fire. The National Library, a grand turn-of-the-century Hapsburg building with a towering atrium, is still standing-without floors, roof or windows. To the southwest, in the Olympic Village that during the winter of 1984 housed athletes from around the world, no building is intact; basements are crammed with Sarajevans trying to avoid the shelling. To the north, the locker rooms of a small Olympic stadium have become makeshift refugee camps for Muslims from villages in Serb-held areas around Sarajevo. The roof of a large hockey stadium where figure skater Katarina Witt won her first gold medal has collapsed.

It's been more than a month since the first anniversary of the war. Everyone remembers the date, April 5, and the name of the first victim, Suada Dilberovic, a beauty from Dubrovnik who was studying in the Bosnian capital. During a peace demonstration, she strode alone across the bridge toward the Serb side and was shot dead. Now the bridge is called the Suada Most (Bridge), and people usually run when they cross it. Some of them end up in Kosevo hospital, probably the world's busiest trauma center. Just now there are only 100 fresh victims in emergency or critical care; usually there are 150. "Yes, they did some damage yesterday, so they're quiet today," says Dr. Faruk Kulenovic, chief of the trauma unit sitting at a table in his office piled with souvenir shell fragments. "We call those cases the 'wounded wounded'," he says, not trying to be funny. "We get a lot of children with direct hits in the head from snipers. At that range, it can't be an accident." While he's talking, two shells hit the center of town, not far away. Minutes later, a flock of ambulances arrives with the 15 victims, five of them children.

In the X-ray suite, a 5-year-old blond boy named Asim Avdic is crying in agony, a piece of shrapnel in his back. His parents coo to him and kiss him, and alternately turn their backs when one of them can't control their face for a moment. They already know what the doctors are whispering about; that he's probably paralyzed from the waist down. Passing nurses stroke Asim's hair and don't meet the parents' eyes.

Many Sarajevans still hope for U.S. intervention. They know the risk--that U.S. airstrikes against Serbian artillery positions in the hills outside of town may provoke a massive retaliatory barrage and huge civilian casualties. "I personally wouldn't mind my apartment being destroyed in this final shelling," says Gordona Knezevic, deputy editor of Oslobodjenje, the Sarajevan newspaper that still comes out every day. "As it is now, each of us can be killed in his bedroom, his newsroom, his office, his bathroom, at any time. You think, 'If I have an appointment with a shell, it will find me anyway'." Four hours later, the windows in the office next to hers are blown out by a blast, killing five people.

Join the Discussion