Boy Braves Serb Shelling to Cut Wood for Besieged Sarajevans

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AFTER seven months of venturing across front lines to gather his treasure, Fahro looks like a boy - but sits, talks, and rationalizes like a middle-aged man.

Dressed in a Levi denim jacket too wide for his narrow shoulders, the teenager explains with blank brown eyes what he does for a living.

''I go to the no man's land across the front line and collect wood,'' he says quietly. ''The [Serbs] are on the cliffs, and we are below.''

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Fahro is one of a handful of Sarajevans who risk their lives daily to collect the precious commodity this newspaper is made of - wood.

After three long years of a Serb siege of this Bosnian capital, most trees have been cut down and burned as cooking or heating fuel.

In a place where a wage of $30 a month is extraordinary, a supply of wood that will last most families for three weeks in the summer and two weeks in the winter costs $10.

After a brief stint of selling cigarettes on the street, Fahro switched to collecting wood last December as a more viable way to support himself and his grandmother.

''I buy flour and cooking oil with the money and give it to her,'' he says. ''She has no pension.''

He talks about his work nonchalantly, but sits stiffly with one hand on the table and one hand on his leg.

His parents are divorced. He's lost contact with them, and his older brother is in the Bosnian Army. ''We have to do something,'' he says. ''There's no other way to survive.''

The Serbs have taunted Fahro, who asked that his last name not be used, but have never shot at him while working. Both an elderly man and middle-aged man Fahro occasionally works with have been shot at.

''The Serbs shoot at us when they can see us,'' Fahro explains as he eagerly sips a Coke. ''But we go around 4 p.m., and it's a good time because they are digesting their lunch.''

Most Sarajevans are experts by now on which kinds of clothes and household items burn well. Rubber shoes burn for a long time, but smell horrible. Whole wardrobes and book collections have been sacrificed in the name of briefly heating a room or cooking dinner. Bombed-out houses and back-yard sheds are routinely pilfered for wood. .

''Shopping'' or collecting wood in the city has become increasingly dangerous since the collapse of a United Nations heavy-weapons exclusion zone around the city last month. In the worst fighting in more than a year, the Bosnian Serbs are again shelling city streets on a daily basis after the Bosnian government launched its offensive to liberate the city.

UN officials report that the number of civilians killed in Sarajevo doubled last month - from 70 killed and 245 wounded in May to 144 killed and 608 wounded in June. More than 10,000 people, including 1,580 children, have been killed in Sarajevo during the siege.

Fahro begins his day by hauling a couple of used ''USA Flour'' grain sacks filled with wood downtown. He stands next to old women selling their clothes and other household goods on a street corner 50 yards from the open-air market where more than 60 Sarajevans were killed by a shell in February 1994.

In the late afternoon each day, Fahro heads to the front line. For about six hours, he quietly collects wood in the dim light and drags it down the steep hills that encircle Sarajevo. In the relative security of his home, he chops it into small pieces.

Fahro doesn't have to sell his belongings because he is in such a lucrative field, he explains. Each sack of wood costs $10, and on a good day he sells two. His grandmother knows about his work and has asked him to stop.

''She's afraid,'' he says, ''but I have to survive.''

In September, Fahro will turn 18, be drafted into the Bosnian Army, and find himself in the trenches he now carefully avoids. But he talks about his dangerous work and tenuous future indifferently.

Life and death is not an issue, he explains. It hasn't been for years.

''I'm not afraid,'' says the teenager. ''It's all the same to me now.''

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