Sarajevans Defy War With Paintbrushes, Theater, and Guitars

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AT the shell-pocked Sarajevo Academy of Fine Arts along the Miljacka River in the Old Town, Renata Karamatic unlocks the door to her old studio and steps inside. There are paintings stacked against the walls and shrapnel scars on the ceiling. She turns several paintings around and stands back to look at them.

"I came back here for the first time a year after the war started," she says, "and everything was exactly the way I had left it - a coffee cup on the table, cigarettes in the ashtray. I did these paintings when they were shelling Dubrovnik [Croatia, in 1991]. No one here cared, they thought it couldn't happen to them.

"This painting I call the Fairy Tale City. I did it right before the war; I knew what was coming but I didn't want to admit it. It was a painting of the way the world could be," she says.

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The Fairy Tale City is an abstract portrait of Sarajevo in blue and red. The real Sarajevo has taken more than 1 million shells in 17 months; an estimated 13,000 have died. But people seem determined to regain a semblance of normal life. For many, like Ms. Karamatic, that means a return to the art and culture for which Sarajevo was famous.

Perhaps the most potent symbol of Sarajevo's refusal to die is Nermin Tulic, director of the thriving Youth Theater and once the most famous actor in Yugoslavia. On June 10, 1992, just before lunchtime, Mr. Tulic was walking home from the theater when a shell exploded, injuring him severely. He spent three months in the hospital, plotting his suicide, until his wife - a Serb - gave birth to their second daughter on the floor below his. He decided to live.

"One shell cannot change the life of a man except physically," he says. "Every day my actors come to the theater despite the shelling. They are hungry, but they always act. We are fighting back with culture. If culture dies, we are finished." Hungry for a stage

Since the start of the war in April 1992 the Youth Theater has staged the musical "Hair," as well as "Waiting for Godot," directed by the American writer Susan Sontag. By the end of this month, Tulic hopes to stage "Sarajevo Dreams," a "universal story about the Muslim people of Sarajevo 200 years ago." Before the war, Sarajevo Dreams was one of the most popular performances in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At that time, Tulic was the lead actor, and he hopes to return to that position next week in his first stage

performance since his accident.

"It will be the same role, the same performance," he says excitedly, leaning forward in his wheelchair. He is a slight man, twitching with energy, with darting gray eyes and a dark beard streaked with white. "Of course ... the only problem is the mise en scene."

There is a general feeling among Sarajevans that to live life as normally as possible is the only act of revenge they have left. In a city where just walking down the street is a small act of courage, attending a play can become an elaborate gesture of defiance.

"They can kill us but they cannot take away our spirit," says Vildana, a young woman. "When we walk down the street and we are scared, we start to sing, and that is the real victory against the Chetniks, that they never made us change our lives."

A few blocks from the Youth Theater, 20 or 30 young people gathered in a small, stuffy apartment a few nights ago for a party. Two candles lit the room and people crowded around them and talked somewhat desperately about politics and the war. Occasional machine-gun fire sounded outside. A space was cleared and a drummer and two guitarists worked some jazz and blues.

Several of the men in the room were headed to the front the next day. "I talk to the Serbs by radio on the front line and they are tired of the war too," says one soldier named Haris. "My girlfriend was a Serb. She left with her family before the war. Afterward we talked on the phone and she called me a war criminal.... We were together for two years."

Political discussions and parties are almost the only entertainment left for the young at night. With a 10 p.m. curfew, people meet at each others' homes and usually stay all night. Some have rigged stationary bicycles - peddled in turns by guests - to provide electricity for stereos.

"What do people in America think of the war?" Haris asks. "Will they do anything? Do they know we are Muslim, but we are just like them?" Forgetting the war

A narrow road winds up through the hills outside Sarajevo and ends at a quiet cluster of houses called Moscanica. The houses sit on a bank above the Miljacka River, surrounded by forested ridges and rocky outcrops. A small millpond turns a water wheel down in the gorge.

Two local boys take advantage of the deep spot to practice their diving. People come up here from the city to swim and watch the hawks ride thermals and generally forget the war. This place, along with the theater performances and parties and concerts makes such a thing possible.

Then reality intervenes. The boys spot some visitors. One of them, Hamza, scrambles up the bank. He is 12 years old.

"It is not good to be here with so many people," he says. "A shell hit here several weeks ago and wounded many people. A man lost his legs. If the Serbs see so many people in a group, they will send a shell."

He points anxiously to a small crater in the pavement. The visitors go back to town and Hamza slides back down to the water.

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