SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — THE war in Bosnia-Herzegovina has compelled Alma, a 15-year-old with an alluring smile, a pageboy haircut, and ragged English, to become a human pack horse.
She ekes out a living by hauling bags down the sheer slopes of Mt. Igman, the only passageway through the Bosnian Serb siege lines between Sarajevo and the outside world.
The mountainside corridor is alive day and night with civilians and troops trudging ant-like along mud-slick, rock-tumble goat paths that plunge from Mt. Igman's brow to the western suburb of Hrasnica.
From there, the city proper for most is gained by walking through a Bosnian Army-dug tunnel under the United Nations-controlled airport. People with UN passes can drive above ground.
Trucks arrive and depart Mt. Igman's fir-clad summit bearing soldiers to and from other fronts. Others carry commercial goods, while buses shuttle civilians back and forth from Croatian or Bosnian government-held central and northern areas.
Military, cargo, and foreign-press vehicles sally between the summit and Hrasnica on a rutted track that winds down the eastern side. It is often closed by Bosnian troop movements and Bosnian Serb gunners have a clear shot on one 50-yard curve, the only part of the track exposed to their positions.
When vehicles do make the run, it is almost always at night. They inch down with headlights off, brake lights taped over, passengers braced for the snap of a sniper's bullet.
The track is controlled on the summit by a Bosnian military police checkpoint, before which sit trucks, vans, and cars waiting to make the perilous descent. The wait can sometimes take days.
Buses go no farther than the checkpoint. There, they disgorge passengers, who stumble down the massif's steep slopes to Hrasnica, passing others climbing to meet outgoing vehicles.
It is from these people that Alma and a group of friends, all residents of Hrasnica, earn their living, charging $6 for each bag they haul. Alma says they work from 2 p.m. until 3 a.m.
I met her one evening last week when the Bosnian military police refused to open the summit checkpoint to the BBC Land Rover in which I was hitching a ride to Sarajevo from the Croatian port of Split. With UN flights suspended, it was the only way in.
As BBC driver Alan Hayman joined the line of waiting vehicles, we were mobbed by Alma and her friends. In broken English, she asked if they could haul our gear down the mountain.
I shook my head as Alan radioed the BBC office in Sarajevo to ask them to arrange permission for us to descend. The office called back to say clearance had been given by military police headquarters, which was ordering its Hrasnica office to tell the checkpoint to let us go. It should not take long, we were told.
So, we waited as a fierce cold descended with the darkness. At one point, several military trucks carrying firewood were allowed to descend. Within minutes, bright red tracer bullets spat after them through the gloom from nearby Bosnian Serb bunkers.
Inured to the cold and shooting, Alma happily practiced her English, chattering to me about her family, favorite rock bands, and dreams of better times. She'd stop to scamper off to seek business from new bus arrivals, but return each time without any.
After four hours, there was still no permission. The cold grew worse, and I donned my bullet-proof vest for warmth amid fears that we would be spending the night on the mountain.
ALMA, however, had an idea: Why not pay her to guide me down to Hrasnica to find out from the military police why we were being held up.
I agreed, tightened my boots, and followed her over Mt. Igman's night-shrouded edge.
The capital's lights beckoned alluringly a quarter mile below. But the mountainside was smothered in a near-solid blackness broken by distant gunfire and the disembodied sounds of dozens of people scrambling invisibly on the slopes around us.
Alma grabbed my arm as we slipped and slid earthward, feeling our way foot over hesitant foot. Weighed down by my bullet-proof vest, I had to grind my boots into the mud and scree to stop myself from falling. Several times, only Alma's grip prevented me from tumbling out of control.
But she remained as adroit as a ballerina, stopping now and then to get her bearings and letting me catch my breath. And as we moved ever downwards, the lights of Hrasnica grew ever closer.
Finally, a rickety fence loomed out of the dark, marking the verge of a lane that led past outlying farms into Hrasnica's bomb-shattered center.
We quickly found the military-police office. While Alma waited outside, I inquired why the BBC Land Rover was not being allowed down the mountain after permission had been granted.
``The BBC?,'' replied a chagrined officer. ``We told the checkpoint to let your vehicle through two hours ago.''
Once assured that Alan was on his way down to pick me up, I rejoined Alma and paid her the agreed price for her guidance.
She asked me to take her address, as who knew when I might need her again. Then, with a final flash of her bright smile, she turned and disappeared into the night, headed once more toward Mt. Igman's distant summit.