In savage ethnic fighting, the spirit of Sarajevo dies Bloodshed replaces decades of harmony


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- From the basement where she hides with four other families, Naza Ganic listens to the nightly sounds of guns and mortars, and knows her city has died.

"I feel every bullet, every explosion with my whole body," says the 42-year-old Muslim woman, her face drained and pale.

"It is destroying more than the buildings," she says. "It is destroying everything this city symbolized. Centuries gone in a few short days.

Centuries of different nationalities living together."

Later, she may die. If not from a bullet, perhaps from starvation. She and thousands of others in this ancient, besieged capital do not know how long their meager supplies of rice and canned food will last.

She, like most of the city's population of 600,000, has stayed. They are too terrified to try and get out. Some, like Ms. Ganic, refuse to believe that their city is now caught in the nationalist madness that is slowly engulfing what used to be Yugoslavia.

After it began, fighting quickly spread beyond the old town. Damage has been reported at to the Parliament building, television and radio relay stations, bus and tram depots, and communications facilities. Shells even hit the Olympic museum commemorating the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.

The Bosnian capital is virtually cut off from the outside world by Serb fighters who ring the city and are engaged in the wholesale destruction of the city's Muslim neighborhoods.

And those who might have helped are leaving.

Foreign relief workers and United Nations and European Community personnel had increasingly become targets of attacks from Serb and Muslim extremists. Indeed, the European Community yesterday ordered its peace monitors out of Bosnia-Herzegovina. So did other international organizations, including the Red Cross, saying a virtual breakdown in law and order has made their task impossible.

The scenes in shell-shattered Sarajevo are sickening. Most shops have been looted, with jagged glass from shop windows strewn across many streets. Banks are closed. No buses or trams are operating. Those who drive in cars are frequently stopped and searched by various irregulars. Anyone is a moving target for members of various ethnic militias.

The city's defense units have successfully beaten back Serb incursions into the old city, but they are not sure how long they can hold back the onslaught in which hundreds have been killed or injured. Their light arms are little match for the weaponry of the Bosnian Serb militias, which are supplied by the Serb-led Yugoslav army.

So far, according to incomplete figures, more than 1,300 people have been killed since fighting erupted in March following Bosnia-Herzegovina's declaration of independence. About 8,000 have been wounded and almost 600,000 have been left homeless out of a population of 4.3 million.

As a practical matter, no one is able to stop the carnage.

Western nations moved this week to isolate the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, whom they hold responsible for armed aggression in Bosnia. All 12 EC member states, the United States and several other countries have withdrawn their ambassadors from Belgrade, the Serbian-Yugoslav capital, in an effort to make Mr. Milosevic an international pariah. This was followed by threats of political and economic sanctions to completely isolate the Belgrade government.

Mr. Milosevic has repeatedly denied Western charges. He says the federal army is leaving Bosnia.

With the sudden removal of the Yugoslav chief of staff and 39 other generals and admirals, including the commanding officers of the army forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina last weekend, the future role of the federal military is uncertain. Western diplomats say given that 80 percent of the armed forces in Bosnia are Bosnian Serbs -- and that roughly 60 percent of the army's weapons factories and installations are in Bosnia -- it seems probable that the federal troops would side with Bosnia's Serb leadership, which demands the "cantonization" of the republic.

But many in Sarajevo fear that it will only be a matter of time before the army gets more deeply involved as it did in Croatia, where more than 10,000 people died in ethnic warfare last year.

According to a Muslim spokesman, Velbija Karic, Serb paramilitary forces have surrounded at least five other Bosnian cities.

"Bosnia-Herzegovina is in a fight for its life, but with bare hands," said Ejup Ganic, a leading Muslim politician.

The siege of Sarajevo is particularly poignant.

The city may be infamous as the place where World War I began when an assassin gunned down Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. But Sarajevo people have always been more proud of its other distinction: that Serbs, Muslims, Croats, Jews and some others have managed to live together on this exotic confluence of East and West, ruled in turn from either side, principally Turkey and Austria-Hungary.

Sarajevo -- with its jumbled skyline of minarets, Orthodox domes, Austro-Hungarian architecture and modern skyscrapers -- seemed proof that the pan-Yugoslav ideal of former Communist strongman Marshal Tito could work. The notion was that old tribal divisions could be forgotten and people could live together as Yugoslavs.

No more, as Naza Ganic knows. She has been in the heart of the fighting from the beginning. She is a Muslim, like most of her neighbors in Sarajevo's charming old town of winding alleys, carpet shops and bustling Oriental market stalls known as the Bascarsija.

When the battle for Bosnia began in earnest, Sarajevo took the brunt of the attack. Serb forces bombarded the old town with heavy artillery from the hills above. Houses were destroyed. Ancient buildings were damaged. Bosnia's predominantly Muslim territorial defense units in turn had turned their rockets on Serb neighborhoods.

But the battle for Sarajevo is not clear-cut.

The forces surrounding the city are Serbs. Their weapons are supplied by the Serb-dominated army. But from all accounts, they are led by notorious paramilitary groups from neighboring Serbia, the biggest Yugoslav republic. Splintered into a variety of groups, with names like "White Eagles" and "Chetniks," these ruthless paramilitary formations have already grabbed a swathe of land adjoining Serbia in the east of Bosnia-Herzegovina in a spree of destruction and killing.

Hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Serbs have joined in the fray on the side of their blood brethren from Serbia. But not all the Bosnian Serbs support the attempt to break Bosnia into three cantons -- Serbian, Croatian and Muslim -- or to make Sarajevo a divided city. Some Serbs and Croats have joined the mainly Muslim territorial force hastily thrown together to defend Sarajevo. The force's deputy leader, Jovan Divjak, is a Serb. Another deputy is a Croat.

These non-Muslim men, like so many people in Sarajevo, want to preserve the delicate ethnic harmony that has existed for so long in their city -- a harmony reflected in the fact that one in four marriages is inter-ethnic.

Naza Ganic's family is typical. Her husband is a Serb. Her children have left Bosnia for the safety of relatives living in Slovenia.

So few apartment buildings in Sarajevo are "ethnically pure" that snipers cannot be sure who they will hit.

A cease-fire was to have taken effect this morning (midnight EDT), but most cease-fires have not lasted. Even if the latest cease-fire were to hold, too much psychological damage has been done for the city ever to be the same again.

Serbs who live in Sarajevo say they now live in fear of the Muslim-dominated forces defending the city -- even if they do not support the Serb offensive.

"We daren't go out," one Serb student said. "My [25-year-old] brother is particularly afraid because he is a young man. When we are asked for our papers and they see we are Serbs, we are treated roughly. I don't know if we can continue living here."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad