Living With Grace Under Pressure In Sarajevo

All day there was no heat in the Musanovic house in old-town Sarajevo. It was mid-December, nearly freezing, and there had been no gas, water, or electricity in the neighborhood for 10 days. But now, tonight around 9:30, the gas came on and a blue flame in the iron stove burned steadily as the candlelit kitchen began to warm up.

Farida, one of two Musanovic sisters who live in the house with their families, puts lemon and orange peel on the iron stove to make it fragrant in the room. The windows of this home in the historic Bascarsija district were blasted out by artillery shells in 1993 and re-covered with plastic sheeting; it does not keep out real cold. But the return of heat brings a glow to the room and to the faces. The two sisters immediately begin boiling oranges that will later make a sweet citrus drink.

Given the circumstances of life under a siege, these women are a study in grace under pressure. I have just arrived in this besieged city via the only route into town - a mountain road that must be taken at night to avoid Serb snipers. It is my first visit since 1991, before the war. In the interim, Sarajevo has been so photographed and discussed, and its plight has become so strangely fashionable, that one wonders if it any longer registers in the mind as a real place.

In the kitchen, the Musanovics provide reality and dignity. The family has lived in Sarajevo since the 1870s. Farida is a pianist who helps run a music school that remains open. Farida's husband, Mirza, is a leading doctor. Their two daughters - a linguist and a painter - left Sarajevo during the war. Farida's sister, Laila, lost her husband in the first week of war; her two sons live with her here.

Before the spring of 1992, Laila had been a scholar and curator at the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo. In the first month of the war, shells from the hillsides destroyed the institute, setting it and 300,000 documents from the 15th to the 19th century on fire - the entire history of the Ottoman Empire in Bosnia. Priceless Persian and Turkish illuminated manuscripts on literature, law, and science were de- stroyed. All the original works of 28 writers went up in flames so hot that the metal casing of the microfilm copies melted.

In the kitchen, soup is ready. But Laila's son Emir first leads me to a sink and pours water over my hands out of a bottle, then scrubs them with a brush. It is a custom for guests that they have not forgotten. After soup is a Sarajevo standard - rice and beans. Also served is a dish named for a local vegetable, Bamjla, a small okra. It is made with scraps of lamb and herbs that Farida has grown on the balcony. I am exhausted, and it is delicious. Afterward, the sisters bake a cake with flour from the Austrian Red Cross.

Sarajevans no longer dwell constantly on the siege. After three years everyone knows the story. Tonight, instead, talk is of the Bosnian men's chess team that just beat Bulgaria to win the silver medal at the international chess olympiad in Moscow. It is quite a feat for a tiny ravaged country where the government holds only 15 percent of the land. The Musanovics point out that the chess team is multiethnic - four Serbs, a Muslim, and a Croat. ``Can you imagine! A team from Bosnia beating the great powers!''

Mirza walks in. He shakes everyone's hand and puts precious sausage and cheese on the table. Born in Sarajevo, he grew up five streets away in a house painted in a blue-and-orange Arabian design.

He later shows me the house. It is in a typical Sarajevo setting: Next door is a stately pink-and-gray Viennese neoclassic. Next to this is a mosque and minaret from the 16th century. Down the street is a low building made of dark wood called the Han, an old Turkish hotel where horses were kept in the courtyard. A rebuilt cathedral towers near an undamaged Orthodox church. Nearby is the Jewish synagogue and museum - both now locked. Before the war, Jews were a thriving 5 percent of Sarajevo. But they have mostly left. No one blames them.

Despite many shell blasts, the city retains much charm amid its new toughness. The special liberal spirit of the city has changed. The streets speak everywhere of war. But in the houses, people who still can't believe their world is shattered keep their famous civility alive. In the middle of a siege, in houses throughout the city, the kitchen table is a forum for laughter that is warmer and more meaningful because of the wartime it is measured against.

In the kitchen, we talk about everything. Trips that the Musanovics took before the war - to Italy, Sweden, Paris, Istanbul. They tell of their country house in nearby Pale, now the Serbian army headquarters. They show pictures - a small house surrounded by plum trees where the family is gathered around a festive table. Farida remembers students who went to music academies in Europe, America, and Russia. They joke about the candlelight being ``romantic.'' We schedule showers for 2 a.m., when the gas and water may be on at the same time. Gunfire is heard. No one stops talking.

Finally, Mirza mentions the war: a fight the day before on Mt. Igman and how important it is for the Bosnian army to survive. They feel the Serbs still want to break them and take their city. It is easy to forget in this kitchen, but these people are imprisoned.

In the next room, Laila's older son finishes drafting a beautiful fluted column. By day he is a soldier at the front. At night he works toward a design degree. He wants to help rebuild the city - if the war ever ends. Laila gazes at her younger son, Emir. He is 12.

The talk turns to Russia. Rumor has it that Moscow is helping the Serbs who surround the city. But Farida will not let herself hate the Russians. She studied piano in Moscow and loves their music too much.

``I have spent too much time with Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Rachmaninoff,'' she says. ``I cannot hate a people who produce this kind of music.''

The Musanovics are Muslims. But their humanity is universal.

About 1 a.m., the electricity comes on. But the water does not. No showers. The next morning, downstairs in the kitchen, Farida apologizes for waking up later than usual. She had wanted to listen to the radio while the electricity was on - to the classical music programs coming from Vienna and Munich. From other worlds.

She lay awake most of the night, listening to the music.

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