Serb Gunners Bear Down on Bosnian Capital
As UN and EC envoys gear up for next round of peace talks, citizens in Sarajevo endure a bitter and protracted siege
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — IRFAN RASIDAGIC, a robust 75-year-old fond of hiking in the mountains that embrace Sarajevo, died as he sat listening to the 6 a.m. news on the radio.
"He asked me if it was too loud for the neighbors," says Nakir Ramadamovic, who was dozing on a couch opposite his friend when a shell plowed into the room after smashing through the roof of the adjoining house, a ceiling and four intervening walls. "We never spoke again."
Such tales are now common among the 300,000 citizens of Muslim Slav-dominated Sarajevo after almost five months of bombardments and gunfire blasted into the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Serbian extremists entrenched in the surrounding hillsides. Shelling civilians
The Serbs' expenditure of almost every kind of standard military munition has been massive and almost without letup, unleashed indiscriminately against civilian targets in every corner of what has become the world's most dangerous city.
Serb machine gunners have even drilled hundreds of bullet holes through steel shipping containers that have been stacked across intersections to shield pedestrians and vehicles from sniper fire.
Hundreds of people, including children and infants, have been killed and thousands of others injured, flooding the city's overworked and supply-short hospitals, themselves frequent targets of Serbian shelling.
There seems to be no rationale for the high explosive onslaughts except murder or Serbs' desire to punish civilians for security force attempts to break the siege that has made the city dependent on the United Nations-sponsored humanitarian aid airlift.
"You need a computer to figure out how many shells, mortars, and tank rounds have been fired," says Dino Kumic, a television journalist. "One joke is that according to statistics, each Sarajevo citizen has escaped a shell at least three times."
The shelling continued during an international peace conference last week in London.
Leaders of Bosnia's warring factions spoke of peace as Serb forces punished Sarajevo with some of heaviest bombardments of the war.
The barrages continued after the talks adjourned, fueling bitterness and frustration in Sarajevo for what was regarded by beleaguered residents as yet another futile peacemaking attempt by the United States and 12-nation European Community.
"This is the shame of Europe. They said `peace, peace, peace,' while the Serbs fired shells," spits Mirza Bajratarevic.
"Only military intervention can stop this," he says, poking glass chards from the frame of a shattered window of the Cafe Boccacio in the Dolac Malta area, which until last week had been spared heavy damage.
The deaths of at least 15 people and wounding of 31 others by a single shell fired into a crowded street market Sunday prompts outrage from Fred Eckhard, the UN Protection Force spokesman.
"This is shocking," he says of one of the worst attacks on Sarajevo civilians. "This shelling of civilians goes on right under our noses and it is extremely frustrating for us as peacekeepers to witness this and not be able to do anything."
"The peace process doesn't seem to have begun on the ground in any meaningful way," Mr. Eckhard adds. "We are really here under false pretenses at the moment. Our people have been as much a target as the population here."
Bosnia's Muslim Slav president, Alija Izetbegovic, warns that unless the bombardments stop, his government will "seriously consider" a boycott of the peace talks continuing in Geneva this week.
Hardly a single home, factory, place of worship, office, apartment, or vehicle remains unscathed from bullets, shrapnel, or shells from Serbian anti-aircraft weapons, tanks, mortars, multiple rocket launchers, and heavy artillery.
Countless buildings have been damaged beyond repair by direct hits. Many have been struck more than once.
An entire side of the multistory office building of the main newspaper, Oslobodjene, has collapsed in a mountain of shattered concrete slabs. The other side is pock-marked by bullets, a burned-out shell.
Police have ordered people not to stand in clusters and to get off the streets by 1 p.m.
Most residents now sleep - and many live - in their basements. They cook outside on wood fires because electric power was severed two weeks ago in much of the city, cutting water supplies to large sections of the population.
"I've gone from 105 kilos [230 lbs.] to 84 kilos [185 lbs.]," says Kamal Zubovic, 50, an electrical engineer, as he pulled out the waistband of his trousers. "Everybody has lost at least 10 to 15 kilos."
The firing comes at any time: in concentrated barrages, occasional bursts, or just single shots, a brief hair-raising swish of air the only warning of approaching death. Sarajevo is burning
Fire brigade officials say the Yugoslav Army-armed Serbian extremists have been using phosphorous shells designed to set blazes that have destroyed numerous buildings, including the Austro-Hungarian era town hall, the Sarajevo University Library, the two highest high rises, and the Parliament house.
"Most fires are coming at night. That way, they can see how efficient they have been," says Mesud Jusufovic, the deputy fire brigade commander. "They let us work until we are almost finished. Then they begin shooting again when they no longer see flames."
He says the 240-member department has suffered four dead and 31 injured, all in the line of duty and all from shelling.
The department has fought 260 fires, 160 of them classified as major infernos.
"In normal times, these big fires happen only once in five or six years," says Mr. Jusufovic.
"We were on a roof, 30 meters [100 feet] above the ground, when four mortar shells landed. Four of us were wounded," he says. "Then they shot at the trucks. Seven of our men were wounded and four water trucks destroyed."
Many residents tell tales of narrow escapes.
During one recent barrage, a shell crashed into Hajruddin Muslic's apartment, riddling his clothes cupboard with red-hot metal shards.
"We had gone down to the basement a moment earlier. It was the first time my wife and kids listened to my order to go downstairs," says Mr. Muslic.