In the bleak depths of November, when cold and hunger may be killing their neighbors, sisters-in-law Aida and Dijana Tokic will be bearing testimony to their faith in Bosnia’s future by giving birth in a city much of the world has left for dead.
“I believe there is still life here, that there is still a chance for survival,” said Aida, a physician, the wife of a dentist-turned-soldier and the mother of a 3-year-old son. “This new life within me gives me a sense of power, a feeling of control over the future.”
The Tokic women, both 32, see their own survival and that of their children as a moral victory for defenders of integration, who they concede are on the verge of a military and diplomatic defeat. Even if the siege that has already taken the lives of thousands of their compatriots continues through a second winter, the women believe they will somehow manage to stay alive.
“It seems like the outside world would prefer that we were all dead, so that our suffering won’t trouble their conscience any longer. But do they really expect us to go along with that?” Aida asked incredulously.
“I can’t explain how we will survive. I just believe that we will. A big part of our battle is psychological. I am having this baby because I am convinced it will inspire us to pull through.”
Seven members of the Tokic family have found refuge in a borrowed two-room apartment after being driven from three separate homes in Sarajevo suburbs now in the hands of nationalist Serbs. Brothers Smalj and Mirsad Tokic, their parents and wives, and 3-year-old Ivor have crammed into the tiny ground-floor dwelling that lacks electricity, water and heat--like most habitations in Sarajevo--not to mention privacy for the two young couples forced to sleep in a single room.
But the Tokices have defiantly refused to put their lives on hold any longer while the nationalists’ shells and bullets tear this European capital to pieces.
“Of course we are terrified of this winter and what lies ahead, but I am more afraid of waiting too long to have children. I will not let them deprive me of anything else in my life,” Dijana, a Croat and a university professor of English, said of the encircling rebels whose artillery has smashed scenic Sarajevo into an urban wasteland.
Sarajevo’s birthrate has fallen to less than a third of its prewar level. Most of the capital’s residents fear bringing children into a city that has been under bombardment for 17 months and into a country being forcibly segregated with the blessing of Western mediators intimidated by the nationalists’ guns.
For the Tokic women, though, braving medieval conditions to bring forth new life is an expression of their determination to see this society survive.
“A lot of us are finding we are capable of things we never thought we could do,” said Aida. “I saw a 71-year-old woman I know chopping and collecting wood the other day. When I asked her how she managed, she looked at me and smiled and said she simply refused to be a victim. I know exactly what she means. Complete strangers come up to me on the street and ask me if I’m crazy, having a child in this madness. But this is my way of telling them (the Serbs besieging the city) that they can try, but they will never kill us all.”
The Tokices have no money and few belongings, as they fled their vanquished villas in Vraca and Grbavica in haste. But they say it is only the material things they’ve lost.
Like most survivors in Sarajevo, where the average person has already lost 30 pounds because of irregular food supplies, the Tokic couples fear that malnutrition and exposure could kill more people this winter than the rebel shelling and sniper fire. Their fears are well grounded, as vital shipments of diesel fuel to power the city’s water pumps, bakeries and natural gas network remain blocked by both Serbian and Croatian armies seeking to starve the Muslim-led government into capitulating to an ethnic division of the country.
Even with an impending accord, prospects for a stable peace remain doubtful, and international aid agencies have been struggling to stave off the kind of humanitarian catastrophe that was avoided last year only by virtue of an unusually mild winter.
Of most concern to the relief officials is the mounting dependence of Bosnians on foreign food aid. Despite on-again-off-again peace talks, more civilians are displaced each day by continuing warfare and this conflict’s signature atrocity of “ethnic cleansing.”
“There are 1 million more affected people in Bosnia-Herzegovina than there were at this time last year and we are increasingly unable to reach many of them because of fighting and roadblocks,” said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in this republic. “There is deep apprehension that things are going to be very, very bad this winter, and that it will take some shocking development--like getting into a village that has been cut off for months and finding everyone dead--to move the outside world to do something for these people.”
The conflict has killed 200,000 Bosnians, and the U.N. refugee agency estimates that 2.3 million Bosnians, or more than half of the country’s 4.4-million prewar population, are wholly dependent on humanitarian aid. Another 1.3 million people in other former Yugoslav republics are also relying on charity, most of them refugees from the past two years of war in Bosnia and Croatia.
While able-bodied adults like the Tokic couples persevere on psychological reserves, adolescents and the elderly are dangerously vulnerable to the ravages of winter.
Nutritionist Svetlana Zec warns that 5% of remaining Sarajevans and 15% of the city’s refugees already suffer from malnutrition. The figures are likely to skyrocket, she predicted, as the temperature drops and the already weakened people burn more calories to stay warm.
There are already 600 cases of dysentery and 68 of hepatitis at Kosevo Hospital, Zec said, foreshadowing epidemics of flu and disease this winter unless regular supplies of water and heat are restored.
The International Rescue Committee, a relief group that last year waged a major campaign to cover blasted windows and roofs with plastic sheeting, is focusing this fall on ensuring that some heat flows into those homes.
Because electricity is routinely cut off by the surrounding Serbian rebels and the plants supplying Sarajevo are dangerously close to areas where Croats and Muslims are fighting, IRC has helped install natural gas connections in 2,500 Sarajevo apartments and is appealing to the international community to ensure that the fuel supply does not become another weapon in the conflict.
“Gas is the issue. This has to be seen as critical and we are encouraging the international community to keep the pressure on (the surrounding rebels) to prevent it from being cut off,” said John Fawcett, IRC’s Sarajevo coordinator.
Despite the agency’s efforts to make this winter survivable, Fawcett said he fears that the disaster averted last winter is stalking Bosnia this year.
“The situation is getting worse. It has been getting worse for this whole year, yet gloom and doom statements don’t seem to be getting us anywhere,” he said, accusing Western political leaders of shirking responsibility for ending the war causing the civilian nightmare. “Last fall we had warnings that 400,000 people might die, which didn’t happen, but not because anyone did anything about it. We just had a mild winter.”
Bosnians are more vulnerable now because they have lost weight and used up whatever food and fuel reserves they had last winter, Fawcett said, warning that severe temperatures could result in widespread deaths from starvation and exposure.
Older residents of besieged Sarajevo, like retired virologist Feliksa Metz, seem to be relying on hope for an end to the war as their strategy for survival.
The frail, white-haired pensioner lives alone in an elegant turn-of-the-century building where shattered windows have been replaced by plastic bags and masking tape. She spent last winter huddled in a tiny kitchen a younger neighbor outfitted with a wood stove, forsaking the soothing escape of her grand piano in the front salon.
Metz, 65, the granddaughter of a Swiss carpenter who settled in Bosnia before World War I, refuses to leave Sarajevo despite invitations to join relatives abroad. “This is my home and my country. I don’t want to be a refugee,” she said proudly. “I’m not Muslim, Serb or Croat, so how can anyone ethnically cleanse me?”
But survival is a struggle, she admitted, for an old woman alone in a city under siege.
She has developed calluses on her diminutive hands from lugging a three-gallon jug of water each day from a communal tap several blocks away. She counts out tiny daily portions of her U.N. bean ration to make it last all week and gathers nettles from parks and graveyards to add some flavor to her nightly soup.
“I’m not complaining, though,” she insisted with a laugh, in an attempt at guarding her dignity. “My parents always taught me to eat what was put in front of me and that hard work is its own reward. I just never thought that after 40 years as a doctor I would be dependent on charity because my monthly pension buys only one egg.”
Families with school-age children are also considered among the most vulnerable to wartime winter because food supplements provided by UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund, reach only those younger than 7.
Svetlana Blagojevic, a 33-year-old Croat married to a Serb, worries about her 10-year-old daughter, Jelena, who has stopped growing amid the deprivations. “We give the most to the children, but what we get just isn’t enough,” said Blagojevic, who also has a 4-year-old son. “We are lucky if we get one liter (about a quart) of milk in a month.”
Her parents, sister and in-laws have also moved into the family’s two-room apartment, having been flushed from the Serbian-held city of Derventa in northern Bosnia more than a year ago.
“We could have gone to our vacation home in Croatia at the start of the war, but I felt it was wrong to divide the family,” said Blagojevic, whose journalist husband serves in the local militia. “Sometimes when I have no food I regret not running when we had the chance. But most of the time I’m glad we all stayed in this together. All we want is to get our freedom and a normal life back. We don’t care who rules this country, we just want to survive.”
Williams was recently on assignment in Sarajevo.