As West Lets Bosnian War Escalate, Plight of Civilians Is More Poignant

IN pictures, she is pretty with long blond hair, freckles, and a big smile. In the Bosnian Ministry of Health, she is number 1,586.

Sidbela Zimic was killed Sunday when she and three other young girls were struck by a shell that slammed into the public playground where they were playing jump rope.

A nine-year-old girl who wrote poetry, didn't like boys yet, and promised her family she would never leave home because she was so happy, abruptly became a footnote in a war that has rendered nearly impotent the UN's largest and most expensive peacekeeping operation ever.

Sidbela was the 36th person killed in Sarajevo since the United Nations stopped enforcing a heavy-weapons exclusion zone around the city last Sunday. And she was the 1,586th child killed in Sarajevo and the 16,779th child killed in Bosnia since the war began.

Yesterday, a Serb shell hit the television center in Sarajevo, killing a guard and wounding about 37 foreign journalists. Four Sarajevans were killed in a separate blast.

All sides in the war have at times targeted civilians in the conflict. But the Serbs have done it far more often than the Muslim-led Bosnian government.

Sidbela's life and her family's losing battle to keep her indoors are a mirror of Sarajevo and the UN's struggle here over the last three years. A city that endured the siege in 1992 and 1993 and then experienced a UN-protected lull in shelling in 1994 is struggling to come to grips with a return to the brutality of the war's early years.

"When you write the story, tell the world that the three little girls and the other 17,000 children killed in Bosnia send their best regards to [the leaders of Europe and the UN]" her father, Sabri Zimic, said, with bitter sarcasm, as he wept Monday.

With the Serbs successfully calling the bluff of the West by taking UN peacekeepers hostage, a year-old heavy-weapons exclusion zone around Sarajevo has collapsed. The long-running dynamic in Bosnia - where Western nations were willing to make limited stands against the Serbs, but not if they resulted in casualties among peacekeepers - has played itself out again.

For Sidbela's father, a professional soldier who was a member of the Yugoslav National Army before the war began in 1992, the most important battle of his life was fought and lost with Barbie dolls and beauty pageants.

"I bought them 15 Barbies. I bought them this car," he says motioning to toys in an apartment filled with relatives and grief. "Everything just to keep them inside, but it didn't help."

He went on to describe how he helped his daughter and her friends convert one room of their apartment into a playroom. Inside it, they conducted mock beauty pageants, complete with juries, crowning a "Ms. Building" or "Ms. Street" each time they played.

On Sunday morning, Sidbela and her sister were begging their mother to let them play outside. "We were always joking," her father says. "She was always saying, 'Daddy, please let me live my life. I can't sit in the house all the time.'"

After a few minutes, Sidbela and her sister were allowed to go out onto a playground sandwiched between two apartment buildings.

"I was playing with them, and my mother said, 'your Aunt is here come in. It's time for your English lesson'," says Sidbela's sister Minela, whose large brown eyes seem unable to comprehend her sister's death. "I had read one word of the lesson when the bomb hit. Momma found her downstairs."

The return to the worst shelling in Sarajevo in a year has created a dilemma for parents throughout the city. Children who have grown used to playing outdoors under the umbrella of relative UN protection in 1994 are being kept inside for days or even weeks at a time by terrified parents.

"The kids want sunshine, but they can only have a little," says one of Sidbela's neighbors who infuriated her children by keeping them inside on Sunday. "The shells are always a surprise, you never know the place or the time."

Sarajevans are growing increasingly hostile toward outsiders. A new bitterness accompanies statements that the only hope of ending the shelling is the Bosnian Army, not a new 10,000-troop UN Rapid Reaction Force most Sarajevans also expect to be rendered impotent by the West's continuing fear of casualties.

Last Sunday, the day Sidbela, the two other girls, and seven other Sarajevans were killed in different sniping or shelling attacks, the Bosnian Serbs fired on UN convoys twice, at one point firing 15 tank rounds. UN peacekeepers, fearing they would hit the Serb civilian areas the weapons are positioned in, responded with smoke bombs.

Sidbela, like so many other Sarajevans suddenly reduced to footnotes, was buried Monday night in an overcrowded graveyard. The service, like most in the city, was held after dark to prevent Serb snipers from shooting at the funeral party as they have in the past.

"I'm not allowed to bury my daughter in a decent way. I've got to bury her secretly at night," her father says. "If their children were being killed, they'd think about it in a different way."

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