The World's Most Dangerous Tram

Vulnerable to sniper fire, Sarajevo's only mass transit is a symbol of normality for Bosnia's embattled capital

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

WHEN Muhamed Burek leaves home for work, he doesn't know if he will live to see his wife and two children at the end of each day.

But Mr. Burek is not a soldier. He drives one of Sarajevo's electric trams.

``I think about my family every time I pass the Holiday Inn,'' Mr. Burek says, as his tram grumbles by the hotel's bullet-pocked bulk in the city center. ``I wonder how they would survive if anything happened to me.''

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The hotel marks the end of the most hazardous leg of Sarajevo's 18-mile tram system, a quarter-mile stretch of track exposed to Bosnian Serb snipers who take cover in abandoned buildings only 100 yards away on their side of the front line.

Like moving targets in a carnival shooting gallery, the red-and-yellow trams shuttle tens of thousands of Sarajevans through the zone daily; service suspended only by power outages and sniper fire. Burek and his fellow drivers make the run dozens of times a day.

``This is the most dangerous tramline in the world and anywhere else that exists,'' says Burek, a gregarious, bright-faced man whose attempts at humor are offset by the deep furrows that worry his forehead. ``This is the tram of death.''

Fifteen civilians have been killed and more than 50 wounded in roughly 50 Bosnian Serb attacks on the trams since they began rolling on March 8, 1994, following repairs from shellfire that disrupted service for 22 months.

The injured include three drivers.

Nine people were wounded last week by machine-gun fire blasting a passing streetcar, but the trams remained defiantly in service.

The unpredictable attacks have persisted despite an antisniper accord this summer between the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-led Bosnian Army and deployments of UN antisniper teams in armored cars along the hazardous stretch of track.

``What's the use of that,'' snorts Burek at a French UN armored car parked on a sniper-prone intersection with its cannon pointing skyward. ``It looks like he is shooting airplanes. When the Chetniks [Serbs] see that, they see they are safe.''

``It's really tough,'' continues Burek, who has survived three sniper attacks. ``I just expect the guy to shoot. And when he doesn't, I think, `I passed again this time.' Because I never know when he is going to shoot. They have no rules, no schedule.''

Beyond machine-gun fire, shelling remains a threat for Sarajevans. Bosnian Serbs shelled the Sarajevo suburb of Hrasnica over the last four days, killing three people and wounding 25 others.

The Bosnian Serbs say they are shelling Sarajevo in retaliation for a current Bosnian government offensive in the northwest part of Bosnia in which 100 square miles have been reclaimed by government forces.

THE Bosnian Serb army had threatened to shell ``selected targets'' in Sarajevo unless the UN commander in Bosnia, Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, stopped the government offensive to Bihac and cleared Muslims from a Sarajevo demilitarized zone.

Even so, the hazards do not prevent up to 200,000 passengers per day from using the trams, the only working mass transit system in the city. Many explain that after more than two years of siege, bombardments, food shortages, and power, water and gas cuts, they have become inured to the dangers of commuting Sarajevo-style.

``We are used to all of this. We live with fear,'' says Senada Hodzic, a student who travels by tram daily between her home in the Cengic Villa neighborhood and classes in the city center.

She was riding through the sniper zone when an attack occurred on Oct. 11, bullets raking the tram in front of the one in which she was riding. One person was killed and 11 injured.

``People began screaming. And in Sarajevo, when you hear screaming, you know something really bad has happened,'' she recounts. ``My tram stopped, and everyone scrambled out. We lay on the ground and just stayed there for 15 minutes.''

Ironically, the trams are not seen as death traps. Instead, they are hailed as symbols of the city's collective will not only to survive, but to preserve as much as possible the former way of life that its tormentors seek to exterminate.

``The trams mean a lot to this city,'' says Zaim Merdzanovic, a driver who came out of retirement because of a personnel shortage. ``They mean the city can live a more normal life.''

So important a symbol are the trams that the 350 men and women who run them work without salaries, up to 15 hours per day, seven days a week.

``We all work here for love,'' says Fikret Besic, the chief dispatcher, as he notes in a giant log book arrivals and departures of trams at the main terminal.

The trams were among the first targets of the Bosnian Serb bombardments that began in April 1992, perhaps as much for their symbolic value as their economic importance.

Workers tried to keep the system running. But on May 2, 1992, it shut down for the first time since 1895, when Sarajevo became the first central European city to operate electric trams.

When NATO airstrike threats forced the Bosnian Serbs to withdraw their heavy guns in February, a full-scale effort was launched to repair damage to the system, estimated at $80 million.

Protected by UN troops, workmen replaced the 600-volt overhead electric grid and large sections of track, helped by $900,000 in British aid. They repaired 20 of the 93 trams that carried up to 500,000 riders daily before the war. The rest now rust in the stockyards.

Four workers were killed and several UN soldiers wounded by Bosnian Serb gunfire during the repair operation. But on March 8, the first tram was successfully tested.

A week later, public service reopened, thousands of people with nowhere to go riding the trams just to celebrate.

The system remains beset by problems other than Bosnian Serb bullets. It has no income because rides are free and power often fails. It also lacks enough staff and cars to meet demand.

Crowds spill into the streets as they wait at stops for up to two hours to squeeze onto a tram. A few impatient passengers often hang outside on the door frames or rear couplings.

Even so, like the city they serve, the trams roll on.

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