THE siege of Sarajevo, gradually tightening over the past year, appears to be coming to a head.
The World Health Organization and other international relief groups issued stark warnings last week that catastrophe is imminent here in the Bosnian capital. With water and power supplies cut off for weeks, there are concerns that epidemics may ravage a population already weakened by deprivation. More than 700 cases of dysentery have been reported in the last week as people are forced to turn to contaminated sources of water.
Nobody knows just how many people are trapped in this city. It is encircled by Bosnian Serb forces who control all approach roads, some of the suburbs, and even a pocket of the city center on the south bank of the Miljacka River, which bisects Sarajevo.
Relief officials calculate supplies to the city on the basis that it still houses about 380,000 people. But some believe the numbers may have dropped below 250,000. Thousands have fled the beleaguered capital, which is supposed to be one of the "safe havens" designated by the United Nations for the Bosnian Muslims.
With UN relief efforts blocked, it is hard to see how people like Sershef Plako and his family - or anybody else for that matter - could subsist here.
A 38-year-old waiter turned soldier, Mr. Plako has three young children to feed. But his monthly wages amount to barely $3, not even enough to buy bread.
"I used to work in the tourist industry, but there are no tourists now," he says. "Like everybody else, we more or less survive on the humanitarian aid."
Inured to often random shelling and sniping, the people of Sarajevo - the majority of them Muslims, but with large numbers of Serbs, Croats, and people of mixed background - have found their living conditions worsening sharply in recent weeks as the Serbs tighten the screws.
There has been no electricity for more than three months.
The government refuses to repair a crucial power source that Muslim snipers destroyed last month because it also fed a nearby Bosnian Serb weapons plant.
Water mains have been cut for more than four weeks, and supplies of natural gas, piped in from Russia and Hungary, have also been severed.
The cumulative effect of those privations has made living here almost intolerable. While most Sarajevans manage to adapt and survive, the situation has been brought to a head by an acute fuel shortage imposed by the Bosnian Serb blockade. No fuel, no bread
"It's a fuel problem, and it's a tremendous problem," says Peter Kessler, spokesman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the lead relief agency in Bosnia. "If we don't have fuel, we can't distribute food. Nor can we run the ovens that make the bread at the bakery. Nor can we operate pumps to bring water up from wells.
"No water is moving, and sewage is festering," he adds.
"There is a very, very dangerous hygiene situation which is worsening as the weather heats up. There is a very real danger of epidemics."
In an urgent message to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali last week, the director-general of the World Health Organization, Hiroshi Nakajima, warned that the remains of the health system in Sarajevo were on the verge of collapse, and that the city faced "a catastrophe, the likes of which Europe and the world have not witnessed since the dark days of the Second World War."
Five independent international relief groups also warned that the city was on the brink of disaster, with water and food supplies at critically low levels. They called on the UN Protection Force, which is mandated to guard relief convoys, to use force if necessary to break the Serb blockade on fuel and other supplies.
Unlike some sieges, the Bosnian Serb blockade of Sarajevo is virtually nonporous, and the city is almost entirely dependent on relief aid for its food requirements.
The UNHCR tries to bring in some 1,800 tons of food and medical supplies every week, to provide each inhabitant of the city with little more than a pound of food per day - though this ration has been cut by 20 percent for the next two months because of shortages and disruptions.
With roughly half the relief coming in by UNHCR airlift and the rest by increasingly harrassed convoys, one problem is that the food aid is made up largely of dense, dry goods such as rice, pasta, flour, beans, lentils, and milk powder - all of which require water to be of any use.
With no electricity or fuel to power water pumps, most Sarajevans have to line up for hours to fill containers at a handful of natural springs. Water lines have been hit by Serb mortars several times. Farming the balcony
Like many others, Boro Pandurevic - a former manager of one of the big Yugoslav state companies - has turned his balcony in the beleaguered suburb of Dobrinja into a multi-tiered garden by stacking seed boxes on metal shelving to grow salad vegetables to supplement the aid rations.
"Everything you see on the table here came from the relief aid, except for the salad from our own garden," he said at the recent wedding of his daughter Lana. "There is practically nothing else on the market."
Lana's marriage to Mario Suh - like many in Sarajevo, a cosmopolitan affair, since both come from mixed Serb-Croat backgrounds but live in a largely Muslim area - was an affirmation that life goes on despite the grim conditions. But Lana has no illusions.
"We've survived, and the aid we received was quite good until recently when it slowed down," she says. "We're used to not having electricity and running water. We're even used to the sniping and shelling. I know where all the sniper lines are, and how to avoid them. The shelling is unpredictable, but still we're used to that.
"I want to stay here, but not under these conditions," she adds. "This is not life. I don't want to spend my youth living like this. I don't want to lose my nerves and have gray hair at 25. If this goes into another winter, it'll go on forever; it will be another Palestine."
For the meantime, there is no way for Lana and her new husband to get out of the besieged city. They will have to stay where they spent their honeymoon - at his place across the road.
While life in the city is a grim struggle for survival, there are still ways for the determined to enjoy some modest fun.
Many play cards by candlelight to while away the long evenings. Recently, a crop of improvised cafes opened, where guitarists serenade customers who linger long over their expensive drinks. There is even a noisy disco that gets crowded and active enough to fog up eyeglasses.
Designer Daniella Boyanic and some friends amused themselves by putting together a collection of high-fashion garments made entirely of UNHCR food sacks and shelter materials. The "war fashion" show they gave packed the ballroom of the city's only still-working luxury hotel.
"The dresses aren't very comfortable or practical, but the idea was to show what could be done with such materials," she says. "I don't expect girls to wear them every day - but if the war goes on much longer, they may have to."