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Ethnic Discord : Road to Nowhere? : Sarajevo’s citizens can escape the front lines through a reopened route. But few take advantage of it. They are too frightened.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Less than 100 yards from Alma Alic’s front door is the gateway to freedom, the United Nations-controlled airport crossing. It leads to a world without war.

Her narrow suburban street was bumper-to-bumper with trucks and buses throughout the spring of 1994, when the crossing was open to civilians fleeing the nightmare of artillery bombardment and to black-market traders who shuttled back and forth to make their fortunes.

But Alic never braved the trip out of her shattered birthplace. She has no intention of venturing out now, even though U.N. mediators are restoring this on-again, off-again relief valve as they seek to strengthen the four-month cease-fire in and around embattled Sarajevo.

For Alic and the majority of Sarajevans tethered to this broken capital by sentiment or a sense of duty, the reopened escape route from the front-line Dobrinja neighborhood on one side of the airport to liberated Butmir on the other is a road to nowhere. For her and the 380,000 other shut-ins who have tailored their worlds to suit their confinement, what lies beyond the familiar barriers has become too frightening.

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“Everything changes too quickly in this war. It might be peaceful in the morning, then the war is back by night,” says Alic, 32, a photographer-turned-refugee who was forced out of her family’s apartment 200 yards away by Serb nationalist paramilitary troops when they seized that part of Dobrinja in 1992.

To leave Hajrudin, her soldier-husband, and two young sons on one side of the volatile, airport no-man’s-land, even for a short outing to buy food, would risk a devastating separation should the tenuous crossing close in her absence.

Like all Bosnian men of fighting age, Hajrudin cannot leave Sarajevo, and Alma fears that taking the boys with her over the exposed runway crossing could subject them to the sniper fire that has eased but not ended.

“My children are the only things I’ve managed to keep with me in this war,” says Alic, whose says her father was beaten to death during the war and whose mother suffered severe mental damage from the mistreatment.

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“Besides,” she adds morosely, “there is nothing over there for those of us with no money.”

Leaving Sarajevo, for a new life abroad or just for a visit to the relatively intact communities beyond towering Mt. Igman, has become a possibility again after six months of renewed siege.

The crossing from Sarajevo’s Dobrinja suburb to the government-held territory beyond the airport was opened in March, 1994, after a U.N.-brokered agreement to ease the plight of capital residents who had been bottled up since the April, 1992, start of the Serb nationalist rebellion against Bosnia’s Muslim-dominated government.

The opening followed a NATO ultimatum that forced the rebels to withdraw their heavy artillery to a line 12 miles from the city center. The Serbs initially tolerated the brisk traffic in and out of the capital, much of it trucks hauling food, forcing down prices that skyrocketed when the capital was cut off.

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But then the Serbs became angered by the rapidly improving lifestyles of their encircled foes and by a spate of counteroffensives launched by Muslim troops in the north. They cut the airport road in July and stepped up mortar attacks on the capital, as well as artillery shelling along the 1,000-mile-long front line.

With the sole conduit to the outside world blocked, the fate of Bosnian civilians looked increasingly hopeless as the war’s third winter approached. The vital humanitarian airlift into Sarajevo was routinely shut down by the accelerating gunfire.

But both the Bosnian Serb rebels who have captured and “ethnically cleansed” 70% of the country and the government’s mostly Muslim forces struggling to defend the rest were ill-prepared to fight through these harsh winter months. They welcomed the temporary cease-fire proposed in December by former President Jimmy Carter.

Diplomats and mediators privately express fears that the cease-fire that was expanded on New Year’s Day into a four-month truce is only a breathing spell in the conflict and that as soon as spring approaches the battles will resume in full fury.

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Nevertheless the Carter cease-fire has ushered in the calmest period this ruined city has experienced since the Serb rebellion began 33 months ago, and the reopening of the airport escape route is an attempt by the U.N. Protection Force to create momentum toward a lasting peace.

Despite an agreement signed by commanders of the Bosnian government army and the Bosnian Serbs, U.N. spokesmen said routes into Sarajevo--including the airport path--were shut down two weeks ago. Talks are continuing to reopen them.

Use of the airport crossing is forbidden to men eligible for military service, from 18 to 60, as well as to anyone performing essential work, such as doctors.

Even some of the civilians otherwise authorized to leave the encircled capital are deterred by their lack of money to secure the necessary passes or buy goods and pay expenses once they get to the other side. Most Sarajevans who still have jobs earn war coupons worth only a few dollars each month; others are dependent on international humanitarian aid.

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For the Alics and other residents of ironically named Liberators of Sarajevo Street, the agreement opening the barricade at the end of their apartment house means a return of daily backups of smoke-spewing buses and trucks since the main road remains closed and under Bosnian Serb control.

Still, any easing of the rebel Serb noose around Sarajevo is welcomed.

“Everybody benefits from this opening, because it means prices will go down again,” Alma Alic says of the airport crossing.

Another sound of relief comes from the airport beyond the apartments of battered Dobrinja--the roar of C-130 Hercules cargo planes flying in donated food.

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For Anesa Colic, who lives on the other side of the de facto airport approach road, the groaning planes and revving motor vehicles are only a nuisance when she contemplates the meager aid rations making their way to families.

“Most of it must be getting sidetracked,” she says.

Unemployed and single at 20, Colic would seem to be free to venture outside Sarajevo over the airport road to seek a better life. But responsibility for her parents and a commitment to fight on to preserve what is left of Sarajevo keep her huddled in the small ground-floor apartment that faces the road out.

Like her neighbors, Colic fears even a short foray out of long-isolated Sarajevo, but for her own reasons.

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“I’m afraid of what I would see over there,” Colic says of the world beyond the airport runway, where people are free from worry about bombs and bullets. “I’ve forgotten what a normal life feels like, and I might be tempted to stay.”


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