Drowning Out War with Hymns; Defiant Sarajevo Keeps Religious Harmony Alive

The Washington Post
December 25, 1992

SARAJEVO, Dec. 24 – In a city shivering under a winter siege, Christmas hymns drowned out the sound of gunfire at St. Anthony’s Church today.

It was supposed to be a midnight Mass, but it was held at four in the afternoon to beat Sarajevo’s nighttime curfew. Instead of gathering in the main cathedral — which is exposed to attack — parishioners and their friends jammed together, wool coat to wool coat, in a makeshift basement chapel. They faced sniper fire and shellings as they made their way here — but they came.

Catholic Croats were joined in their defiant celebration here by their Muslim, Serb and Jewish friends. Such religious harmony has long been a tradition in Sarajevo, and despite the “ethnic cleansing” campaign of Serb nationalist forces, the war has not succeeded in eliminating it. In fact, the threatened people of Sarajevo seem more determined than ever to reject the ideology of ethnic hatred that their Serb besiegers wish to impose upon them.

At St. Anthony’s, old women sobbed as an angelic-looking girl led a choir in Christmas hymns. It was a crowd of survivors — men without wives, women without husbands. The Rev. Ljubo Lucic encouraged his malnourished flock to press on, comparing Sarajevo’s woes to the troubles faced by Jesus Christ. Lucic preached from an improvised altar with a nativity scene to his left and, behind him, a skeletal Christmas tree scavenged from the front-line hills.

“The Christmas message in this situation is that life is worth living, no matter what,” the priest exhorted. As the Mass ended, he asked the hundreds of worshipers to shake hands with each other. Croats, Serbs and Muslims embraced.

On Christmas Eve, Sarajevo was a freezing city struggling to survive and trying, in the meager ways it can, to continue its old patterns of life, such as celebrating Christmas. The blackened, cratered streets were busier than usual today, as people tried to find trinkets in the few operating shops or outdoor markets. Most of them found frustration, because there is little to buy, little money to buy it with, and no wrapping paper.

“What can I give my husband?” said Mirsada Hubijer, a Muslim married to a Catholic Croat. “Freedom from the siege would be the best gift for him, but I can’t deliver it.”

Hubijer stood in the cold at an outdoor market trying to sell some of her own belongings — a few dirty socks, an ancient iron, a cracked electrical socket.

Her husband was at home recuperating from shrapnel wounds suffered when a Serb shell sheared through their house.

Tonight, instead of their traditional roast beef dinner, the Hubijers were to eat donated macaroni in their unheated, shattered home.

A few feet away, Muhamed Dizdar was selling Christmas ornaments and red ribbons, one of the few vendors in Sarajevo to have such goods. Dizdiland was not making much money today, and he admitted that his efforts were partly for show.

“I’m doing this to spite Karadzic and Milosevic,” he said, referring to Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, both of whom have been accused by the United States of war crimes.. “They haven’t destroyed our souls with their grenades.”

But Serb fighters have ruined Sarajevo, which, as the war has continued, looks less like a real city and more like a depot of blackened rubble.

In normal times, the streets of Sarajevo would be filled on Christmas Eve with fresh-faced shoppers whose arms would be weighed down by gifts. They would go home to warm apartments. No longer.

Because of a 16-day cutoff of electricity, the 350,000 people still living in Sarajevo have no heat, no running water, no lights in their homes.

During the day, most of the haggard pedestrians, wrapped in layers of unwashed clothes, carried containers of water that they had fetched from wells, or branches hacked off park trees. Wild dogs skittered past them. Tonight, the temperature plunged far below freezing.

Few people can afford to buy black-market gasoline — there are no functioning gas stations in Sarajevo — so few people can drive cars to ferry water and wood. These days, the lucky people are those with wheelbarrows or luggage trolleys. The unlucky ones must carry their water and wood on their backs, like urban Sherpas.

Nikola Lipovac, 64, has a baby carriage to hold his water containers. As the Catholic Croat began trudging home after getting water at a city well, he said that his big Christmas Eve dinner would consist of canned ham from a charity group.

In ordinary times, Lipovac, a professor, could afford nice gifts. This year, all he can give his wife is two pounds of coffee. It will be a lonely Christmas, he said, because his son and grandson have fled Sarajevo. And it will be cold.

“My Muslim neighbors will stop by my house,” Lipovac said. “It’s always been like that. The war hasn’t changed our habits. But it has brought sadness.”

The last week has seen a lull in fighting, at least by Sarajevo standards. Shelling of the downtown area has been light during the day, although the gunfire becomes stronger at night, after the Serbs in the hills have begun fortifying themselves with liquor.

Nedzad Niksic spent Christmas Eve in the emergency ward of the Sarajevo State Hospital. He is a fighter on the front line at Otes, where a big battle took place a few weeks ago. It had been quiet there for the last few days, but Niksic was shot in the foot as he ran through an exposed area today. He shrugged when asked if he was surprised that a Serb tried to kill him on Christmas Eve.

“Not at all,” he replied.

Most people here doubt that the siege will end soon. But the determination of many to mark Christmas together is a statement that their tolerant way of life will continue under any circumstances.

Take, for instance, Katica Baros. A Catholic Croat, she is married to a Serb who, according to the Orthodox calendar, is supposed to celebrate Christmas on Jan. 7. This year, Baros and her husband decided to skip celebrations Friday and mark Christmas on the Orthodox date.

They hope there will be more to celebrate then.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.