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In Sarajevo, a Wintry Chill Has Crept Into Civic Spirit : Balkans: The pride that's sustained Bosnia's besieged capital for 2 1/2 years is eroding. Hopelessness is on the rise.

October 23, 1994|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Ana Ivanovich reached into her sewing basket and pulled out a pair of red wool slippers buried beneath a bundle of unfinished knitting.

"These are for you," she told a friend, her eyes welling with tears. "You'll need them when it gets colder."

Ivanovich is leaving Sarajevo. She is one of countless exhausted and fed-up residents unable to bear the thought of another winter at war. Her hands are swollen from hauling jugs of water and stacks of firewood to her hillside apartment near the Zetra stadium, site of the 1984 Olympic ice skating competition. She complains of nightmares and torturous bouts of depression.

"I only knit now for those I love," the 53-year-old preschool teacher said as she stroked the beginnings of a sweater she stopped knitting a year ago. "I just don't have any interest anymore. I am tired. Tired of waiting for something to happen."

Food in Sarajevo is more plentiful, utilities more regular and streets more tranquil now than in winters past. But the people of this besieged city are finding it difficult to muster the will to carry on. Sadly, modest improvements in everyday life, such as occasional running water and electricity, have become a source of anguish themselves--a painful reminder of how dismal the routine in this once-thriving city has become.

"This war is lasting too long. Everyone thought it would be over by now," said Bakir Arnautovic, a young father who works at a downtown food pantry, one of about 100 set up by the Bosnian government to distribute humanitarian relief. "People are burning their cupboards and closets to stay warm. We are a proud people, but we can't take this forever."

Sarajevans have long felt abandoned by the world in their struggle to ward off the Bosnian Serb siege of their city--now in its 30th month.

But residents and relief officials say the sense of helplessness and hopelessness has never been greater as the population hunkers down for a third winter at gunpoint.

"People ask me for advice, and I say, 'Get out of here,' " said Kris Janowski of the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, which provides 200 tons of humanitarian relief to the city each day. "What little dignity was left here has been taken away."

But getting out is not easy. The Bosnian army needs soldiers to fight the war, and the Bosnian government needs civilians to broker peace. Without the 340,000 people trapped here, the Bosnian Serb stranglehold on Sarajevo would command less international sympathy, most likely putting the outgunned Muslim-led Bosnian forces in further peril.

"The Bosnian government does not want people getting out. That is a fact," a U.N. official said.

Residents fortunate enough to win permission to leave speak in hushed tones of their plans, fearful that talk of their pending departure may somehow jeopardize it. Ivanovich has told only her closest friends, some of whom have kept their own plans to themselves. Last month, one friend left unannounced just a day after the two women met for an afternoon.

"A ticket out is the hottest commodity in town," Janowski said. "I don't know anybody who wouldn't want to leave if they could."

It took Ivanovich almost a year to collect the necessary papers, which include a passport, authorization from the Bosnian military, a transit visa to cross neighboring Croatia and permission to use a heavily fortified tunnel near the airport that feeds into friendly territory outside town.

Even with the proper documents, the route is so precarious that trips are organized on short notice, only to be canceled at the last minute.

Ivanovich has been left stranded several times and now keeps a bag near the front door packed with clothes and family photos. The trip out of Sarajevo will cost her about $100, a huge sum she can afford only because her son, a truck driver in Germany, has sent her the money.

"I will worry about my mother," the widow said, gesturing toward an elderly woman huddled in front of a gas stove in the next room. "I've tried to talk her into coming too, but she won't leave. But I won't miss anything else about Sarajevo."

Times have been tough--even tougher--before. But residents say the city has lost much of the solidarity and camaraderie that carried it through past ordeals. The hope and optimism of last spring, when agreements were struck to end two years of intense shelling of the city, have given way to desperation and disappointment as Bosnian Serb snipers continue to terrorize residents, shoot at relief airplanes and threaten to throw out U.N. peacekeepers.

On a recent afternoon, snipers killed one man and wounded 11 others, including several children, when they opened fire on a streetcar traveling on the city's major thoroughfare.

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