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Sarajevo's Lost Generation

February 13, 1994
© 1994 The Baltimore Sun Company, all rights reserved

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina

It was love at first sight, Sarajevo style.

He saw her through his rifle scope as she stood in line for her family's water, then he walked over from his sentry post to chat.

Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love.

But in the besieged city of Sarajevo there are always further, messier chapters: Boy's apartment wrecked by shell fire. Girl's uncle killed by grenade. Boy's friends die face-down in the mud at the front. Girl's neighbor shot in the head by sniper. And so on.

Such is the melancholy climate of romance for Enko Hadzic, 18, and Dragana Sabo, 19. At a time when they should be gently easing free of parents and teachers, they're trapped by the danger and hardship of a 22-month bombardment. In one moment they laugh and blow smoke rings with their cigarettes. In the next they speak with resignation of fate, risk and death. Even if the siege were to lift tomorrow, they would have only the blankness of an empty future to confront.

Enko's and Dragana's experiences are typical among the tens of thousands of young people in Sarajevo, and to spend a few days with them and their friends is to glimpse a lost generation walking deeper into darkness.

For them, a Saturday night on the town means you stroll through pitch-black alleys, sidestepping the puddles of shell holes and groping around smashed, bullet-riddled cars, which are literally stacked atop each other in side streets and parking lots.

Their evening begins at 5:30, as soon as it's too dark for the Serbian snipers who shoot from the hills. Dinner can always wait—it's only the same old rice and beans anyway—and there's a 10 p.m. curfew to beat.

Dragana and Enko walk with five friends, and everyone seems oblivious to the surroundings. Arms linked, they shout, sing and laugh loudly. Once they reach the open streets alongside the Miljacka River, which runs like a spine down the middle of the city, they risk prompting a flare from the opposite hillside, 400 yards away, where the snipers never seem to doze.

It is not an idle concern. Only a few nights earlier a flare soared above them, illuminating their group in an open plaza like deer in a meadow. They scattered and ran for the shadows. No shots came, but they got the message. Yet tonight they're as loud as ever, and now and then flick on the beam of a flashlight to show the way.

Walking at the head of the group are Vlado Jovanovic, 20, and Goran Klaric, 18. Like almost all the young men among the 300,000 people remaining in Sarajevo, they're conscripts of the Bosnian army in the battle to break the Serbs' hold on the city. Although Muslims are the standard bearers of the Bosnian cause, the army units here reflect the city's ethnic mix, which includes Croats and even Serbs. Many simply call themselves "Sarajevans," having come from families of mixed marriages.

Neither Vlado, who is a Croat, nor Goran, who is Muslim, has had a day of military training. Both returned a day earlier from the front lines on Zuc, a mountain north of the city where there has been fierce fighting.

Vlado seems a particularly unlikely man for soldiering. His long, wavy black hair is tied in a ponytail, and he despises even the thought of a gun in his hands.

Without enough guns to go around, the army rotates conscripts to and from the front. Vlado and Goran report to their barracks every morning, and on most days they're not needed. In a week or so they'll probably have to go back to Zuc, marching through the night with their small units, dressed in muddy blue jeans, flannel shirts, overcoats and hiking boots, with borrowed Army rifles slung across their backs. They have no helmets, no flak vests.

On those nights it takes them more than three hours to reach the Bosnian lines, in an uphill journey over exposed fields and through deserted neighborhoods of burned homes.

But tonight their destination is the BB Club, a basement-level dance bar of flashing lights and throbbing speakers. Like every oasis of entertainment in this city without power lines, its operation depends on a portable generator powered by black-market gasoline bought for $ 75 a gallon.

Serbian gunners have sometimes fired rocket-propelled grenades at the club entrance, but so far tonight the sounds from the hills have been limited to scattered machine gun bursts and huge rumbling blasts from the direction of Zuc.

It turns out that the BB Club is closed for the evening, the casualty of a broken generator. Just as well, perhaps. The cover charge is 60 cents, which in Sarajevo's smothered economy is more than two weeks of the average salary. A beer costs $ 2.50. A can of Coke, at $ 9 apiece, vanquishes a week's pay with every swallow.

Vlado leads the group to the next stop, darting down another dark alley, crossing a basketball court dimpled by mortar shells, then slipping through a gash in a concrete wall to a building that houses a small movie theater and a coffee bar.

Inside the bar it is crowded and smoke-filled, and the group claims the last table. Coffee is $ 1.20 a cup, but tonight a visitor is buying, so they order a round. Of the roughly 50 other people in the room, only eight have bought drinks. Everyone instead sticks to cigarettes, which soldiers get as part of their rations.

As a waitress brings the coffee, Vlado leans low across the table and talks of life at the front.

There are trenches dug in the hills of Zuc, he says, but at his sector there are only rough wooden barriers between destroyed homes. "You keep your nose to the ground. You just hope that they will not attack, and that you will not be hit. The other line of the Serbs is only 50 meters away. It is so close that you cannot even talk or the Chetniks slang for Serbian nationalists will hear and maybe shoot a grenade at you."

But sometimes conversation goes back and forth between friend and foe.

"I heard one soldier from here ask his enemy, 'What is your astrological sign?' And he said, 'Donkey. The same as you. We are all donkeys because we are all still here in this mud.' "

"Some nights are OK," Vlado says. "Some are not so good."

The night two days earlier, his last time on Zuc, was not so good. The Serbs celebrated the beginning of their Orthodox Christian New Year with an intense barrage, lighting up the sky over Sarajevo for 25 minutes. The next morning United Nations observers said that the brunt of the firing landed on the Bosnian positions on Zuc.

"I have seen dead before the war only in movies," Vlado says, shaking his head slowly. "It is horrible."

As he speaks, with the bar's loud music playing in the background, Dragana and Enko it to his left, entwined in each other's arms as they share a slow kiss. Enko is tall and wiry, with close-cropped hair, a little boy's grin and two small gold rings in his left ear. Dragana petite. Her black hair is cut stylishly short, and she has put on lipstick for the evening.

Enko laughs and puffs a smoke ring across the table toward their friend Nenad Radojcic, who everyone calls Joker. It is easy to see why. His slanting eyebrows and tiny goatee makes him look like the Batman villain of the same name.

Nenad blows back his own clouds of smoke, as a raucous, bouncy song comes on the bar's speakers. After a half-hour of American rock-and-roll, this tune is playing in their native tongue.

Mycky Sokolovic, 22, who is at the table with girlfriend Nela Dragoja, shouts above the din, "This is by a group called 'No Smoking.' Before the war they were the best band in Sarajevo."

Now, he says, the lead singer has gone to Belgrade and the other members of the band are living in Germany.

Mycky is new to this circle of friends. He met Nela three months ago, during a five-way conversation on a phone-in party line.

The song playing is about two teen-age boys who run away from home, then one is killed in an auto accident. Vlado would gladly take those odds if he could find some way to run away from Sarajevo. Especially if he could reach Vienna, Austria, where his girlfriend is.

"If someone gave me a way to leave here with a 50-50 chance of survival, I would try it," he says. "Because what are my chances of living, anyway, the longer I stay here?"

The most popular means of escape lately seems to be by deserting to the Serbs while serving on the front line. Vlado and Goran have seen it happen.

"They find the right time to cross over," Goran says. "If someone sees them from their own side, then it is all over. They are shot."

"It happens very often," Vlado says. "I understand them all. It is not a good move, but maybe for some it is better. They don't know what will happen. Maybe they will be sent to a camp. Maybe they will only end up in another trench. But they decide they have to get out of here. One time there was a group of 60 or 70. It was a month ago, down by the river, and they all crossed over together."

Vlado as decided against this option. "When you escape from the front lines you make trouble for your friends and family," he says.

He explored others means of escape, such as enlisting the support of relatives elsewhere in buying his way out on the black market. But United Nations officials closed down the most popular of these routes last year by cracking down on a corrupt scheme of selling access to U.N. credentials for up to $3,000. A U.N. pass and a matching passport are all it takes to board the U.N. flights leaving the city.

For now he must settle for the tantalizing contact with the outside world provided by his job. He works in the radio room at the Jewish Community Center, relaying messages between Sarajevans and their friends in other cities. All telephone links to the outside were cut long ago.

The urge to leave seems to come as much from the fear of psychological damage as from the fear of dying.

"At the beginning, the war was almost interesting for us," Vlado says. "We had never seen anything like it. On the first day, all of the people in my building went to the shelter in the basement. Every night the grenades were falling, and we were all talking about it. In some ways it has been like a big school for us.

"But we are getting older very quickly. At first we couldn't imagine how we would learn to live in a war. Now we don't know what normal life is like anymore. To me it is normal to carry water to your house every day, to eat only beans and rice, to have no electricity, no lights. Now people are without fear because there is no way to know where the risk is. You can be killed anywhere. We walk down the main street every day, and that is madness. Sometimes I think we are all going crazy."

The rest of the group feels the same. Twenty-two months of shelling has given them more than enough time to contemplate the changes occurring within.

Nela, who at age 25 is the oldest in the group, ponders such things during her daily two-mile walk to work, a job at the Association for Bosnian-American Friendship. The route passes some of the favorite targets of Serbian artillery, such as the stout four-story building housing the Bosnian presidency.

She sings to herself to calm her occasional panic along the way, but three days earlier the song caught in her throat. She came across a pool of blood and a pair of shoes. A woman killed by a rocket-propelled grenade had just been hauled away.

"It has been a bad month, the worst in six or seven months," she says.

"But we don't want to admit to ourselves that death is so close because we will go crazy. Maybe we are already crazy. Two years ago, exams were the biggest problem in my life. Now I laugh when I think about that."

It is this sort of talk that most disturbs their elders, who must watch the youth of an entire generation vanish prematurely.

Gordana Knezevic, 43, deputy editor of the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodenje and the mother of a 15-year-old boy, says of the city's young: "I am watching the destruction of my past, but they are watching the destruction of their future. The war will mark the souls of each one of them."

The scope of this destruction can be found in a cheerful description of pre-war Sarajevo in "Baedeker's Yugoslavia," which said: "Sarajevo is a city of the young, as visitors will soon realize when they encounter the swarms of young people strolling about the town's streets and parks in the evenings and at weekends."

Back at the coffee bar, Vlado sinks back into his chair, now quiet after his long outpouring of thoughts.

A reggae song comes on the speakers, and Goran moans something about "nigger music."

Mycky joins in, saying, "I don't like niggers. Whatever you see, in sports, in music, in entertainment, it is niggers. When I was in Germany, visiting a friend in Hamburg, he took me to a KKK meeting. I got a membership card and everything."

Except for Goran, who seems to approve, Mycky's friends do not hear his remarks through the loud music. When told of them the next day, they seem puzzled and embarrassed. They have seen first hand where blind ethnic hatred can lead.

"Mycky sometimes likes to exaggerate, to lie just to be lying," Dragana says. "He has said that he can make 40,000 deutsche marks in a day by selling heroin. He has talked about being in gay bars in Paris. So I don't know, maybe he was just making it up."

Vlado is less forgiving. He scowls, saying, "It is stupid to think like that. Stupid."

Most of these people never gave their ethnicity or their religious differences a second thought before the war. This group of seven friends is a mixture of Muslims, Serbs and Croats, and the mixed parentage of several makes even those labels inexact.

The only generalization that commonly comes up in their conversation is the term "Chetniks"—the derogatory slang for Serbian nationalists. They use this to refer to the Serbs firing guns from the hills, but even that makes Nela uneasy.

"We are angry at the other side, so we like to call them Chetniks, but maybe it is wrong to do that," she says. "A lot of those people over there in Grbavica, a Serb-held neighborhood where some Sarajevo Serbs fled when the fighting began grew up with me. They used to be my friends. Now we kill each other. We hate. My first love is on the other side. I can't hate him, but I really don't know what to think about him anymore. When I think that now he has a gun, then every time I hear that one of my friends is killed, at that moment I hate him. I'd like to have just five minutes with him to see if he is the same as he was."

Almost all of them have a story like this to tell, of a Serbian friend who left without warning as the war was brewing, without even saying goodbye.

Mycky resents it when his new friends talk of "Chetniks." He is a Serb, yet he also goes to the front to defend his city at Stup, a bitterly contested area at the entrance to the valley holding Sarajevo.

"The young people on the other side of the river, they are just like the young people over here," he says. "They are also just trying to live."

Nights on the town are fairly rare for this bunch. They spend most evenings at each other's houses, in their neighborhood on the east side of town. They live in a cluster of newer high rise buildings alongside "Sniper Alley," on a block that has borne some of the most brutal close-range shelling.

Viewed from the street, their buildings are torn to pieces, with huge chunks missing. Some apartments have lost their entire front wall, and from the outside you can see the burned furniture still sitting on the floor.

But being on the side or rear of these buildings is no guarantee of safety. On a snowy afternoon at the apartment where Enko lives with his mother, he shows a visitor where a small shell tore into the wall of the kitchen, wrecking the room and partly damaging his bedroom next door. He was on his way up the stairs at the time.

Every window of the apartment has been blown out by shrapnel, which is the norm in Sarajevo. Thick plastic now covers the openings. The temperature in the apartment feels barely above freezing. Enko takes an ax and begins chopping a small pile of wood in the hallway, placing kindling into an iron stove while Dragana heats water for a pot of weak tea.

Enko's mother collected the wood at night, crossing Sniper Alley into a deserted land of gutted high-rises, right under the noses of the Serbian snipers. She and others scavenge in the darkness as quietly as they can, seeking old doors and window frames knocked loose by shelling.

As Enko stokes the fire, a sniper rifle crackles out three shots. Five days ago, Dragana says, a neighbor was shot in the head and killed while standing outside the building.

For the next few minutes they tick off names from a mental list of relatives and friends who have died in the war. Enko mentions two friends killed at the front. "Their bodies were not recovered for four months," Dragana says. "They were lying in, how do you call it, 'no man's land.' "

Just about all their friends keep such lists in their heads. Nela's is up to 10 killed, 20 wounded. "I know a couple, he is 25 and she is 23," Nela says. "Last summer they were walking together, having a nice time. A grenade fell. He lost his left leg. She lost her left arm. Two months ago they were married."

She says this neither as an affirmation of horror nor of the human spirit. It is just something that happened, something she occasionally wonders about whenever she thinks of the war.

"Sometimes it is not so hard to survive," she says. "But it is hard to live. So we try to laugh, to sing. We try to live."

And as their numbers dwindle, they seek each other's company in this odd sort of life they've fashioned.

On some evenings Dragana rounds up Nela and another friend, Anra, by rapping on the radiator in her family's apartment. Nela lives above Anra's apartment. They answer with knocks and shouts.

A few nights earlier, they gathered with Vlado at Enko's house to sing and talk by the light of a single candle. Then, with curfew approaching, it was time to go home.

It is at those moments—when he is without his friends, walking back through the dark—that Vlado feels emptiest during these long months of wartime. His home, he says, "is the worst place for me to be. There is only a candle and my parents. I cannot talk with them the way I do with my friends. So I eat my dinner and go to bed. That is the best way for me."

But for all their closeness now, some of these friends would likely scatter, and fairly quickly, if the war were to end tomorrow. Not from a need to get away from each other, but from a need to escape Sarajevo, with its freight of horrible memories and wasted lives.

"Every one of us, if we can, will leave and go somewhere very far away,"

Vlado says. "This is my city. But after the war, life here will never be the same. Not because of the grenades and the burned houses, but because these are not the same people anymore."

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