When I first arrived in Sarajevo, crossing Mount Igman on a frozen winter morning, suitably early to avoid sleeping snipers, I had little idea of what to expect of my new home.  I had lived and worked in Mostar for six months and though it remained devastated, at least on one side, and sinister and unstable, at least on the other side, the situation at that time was expected to improve.  Not so in Sarajevo where the situation was mostly expected to deteriorate.

I had not slept for two days when I arrived at a flat in the Ciglane area of town belonging to Equilibre, a French aid organization, so I went straight to bed at around five in the afternoon.  I woke up feeling fully refreshed at 7.15 in the evening, after waking for a few minutes two or three times in between.  I couldn't believe how refreshed I felt, until I was informed that I had slept on and off for 26 hours.

An uneasy ceasefire was yet again beginning to collapse during my first days in Sarajevo.  It was obvious that things were about to get much worse sooner rather than later, so I had to somehow work out where it was safe to go and where it was not safe to go sooner rather than later.  However, I learned quickly that nowhere was truly safe to go and that some places were simply more deadly than others.

I knew that Grbavica and much of the area around the Old Jewish Cemetery were under Serb control but this didn’t help me much because I had no idea where they were.  I had somehow got it into my head that Grbavica was a distant suburb, perhaps next to Mount Igman, and that the Old Jewish Cemetery was perhaps 14 or 17 or 20 kilometres from the city centre, somewhere up in the mountains, beside some beautiful forest with a crystal clear stream, perfect for burial.  It came as a terrible shock to learn that the Old Jewish Cemetery was on the edge of Grbavica and that Grbavica was on the edge of the city centre.

I had been working out of Equilibre’s office in the Unis towers for more than a week when a French colleague took me through to the abandoned front offices of the building for the first and only time, crawling through debris on our hands and knees, to peek through the shattered windows.  He pointed across to Grbavica.  It was so absurdly close you could see the colour of the curtains in apartment blocks which towered over Sniper Alley in front of us.  He pointed across to the Old Jewish Cemetery which was so near you could start counting the gravestones.

And yet the first few days of my stay in Sarajevo were uneventful.  There was very little shelling and next to no sniping.  The Jimmy Carter brokered ceasefire was still holding after a couple of months and so confident was UNPROFOR that it would lead to a lasting peace that they had been busy dismantling many of the protective barricades, constructed of shipping containers and old trucks and cars across major junctions to protect people from the snipers.  My new-found friends in Sarajevo were not so confident because they knew from experience that if UNPROFOR were optimistic then there could be no logical reason to be optimistic, and they were to be proved right again.

UNPROFOR, more commonly known as RUNPROFOR, were straight out of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, minus the genius and intelligent humour.  In Mostar the organisation I worked for had received ‘Evacuation Procedures’ from the Spanish battalion by fax one time: it took the form of a badly drawn childlike cartoon divided into two parts, the first headlined ‘in event of shelling of town run to nearest UN base’ with a drawing of people with suitcases running into a base, and the second headlined ‘in event of shelling of UN base, disperse and scatter’ with a drawing of people with suitcases running out of a UN base.  Their spokesman in Sarajevo as the Carter ceasefire began to unravel bore an unfortunate name: Gary Coward.

Time became truly relative as the ceasefire collapsed and chaos increased.  It would slow down and then accelerate, you’d lose all track and be unable to measure it.  I couldn’t imagine how anyone in Sarajevo could have remained sane not only in the midst of the horror but also the utter surrealism of it all.

There was a movie 'poster', actually a rough but very large painting, on a wall on the junction of Titova and Alipasino Street.  It was an image of Wyatt Earp with two pistols, advertising the film at Kino Radnik.  Wyatt Earp would watch over you as you'd run for your life across that junction.  Across the road a guy who would often wear nothing more than a towel bound around him like a diaper would cheer for you as you ran.  He never ran, indeed it was rumoured at the time that the snipers kept him alive for their own amusement and in the hope that he’d infect everyone else with his insanity.  On a fog-bound morning of heavy shelling, while I crouched for shelter in a doorway on Ferhadija Street, a woman wearing an opera costume passed me by like a ghost ship appearing out of the mist.  She stared into space as she sang, her voice echoing through the streets.    

The smell of burning garbage was always in your nostrils by day and the howling of half-mad dogs was always in your ears by night.  But life went on.  Couples would kiss, people would chat in doorways, coffee and pita would be consumed.

The electricity would come on after a day or two just as the water went off.  The gas would come on after a week or two just as the electricity went off.  The water would come on and you’d have to run around your apartment filling the bath and also plastic bottles and buckets because it could just as easily go off again any minute and not return that day or the next.  The toilets in café bars, where the flush would seldom have the water required to flush, had a specific stench that was so overpowering that, while using the toilet, you would try to hold your breath for 30 seconds, 40 seconds, 50 seconds, to avoid retching.

There were few cars and no filling stations so diesel was for sale on the street, usually next to markets.  As it was scarce you would fill a reserve plastic canister kept in the trunk.  Every vehicle you got into smelled of diesel and would be driven insanely fast, except after dark when they would be driven insanely fast often with the lights off.  And they would constantly break down due to their old irreplaceable parts.  I remember having to push an old yellow golf, stranded between the Holiday Inn and Unis Towers on a bright sunny day, clearly exposed to the snipers.  An armoured jeep filled with people wearing flak-jackets and helmets passed by to make it completely obvious to me that I had chosen the wrong job.

And it only got worse as the weeks and months went on.  Walking turned to running which turned to sprinting everywhere.  A few shells became a few dozen and then a few hundred every day.  Sniping was constant and spread across the entire city.  If they were in a good mood the snipers would shoot at whatever you were carrying but they were seldom in a good mood so they would just send men, women and children to graveyards already at bursting point after years of siege.  Sarajevans never lost their defiance though, some would sprint across exposed open ground to the safety of a wall or barricade and then reappear for a second raising a middle finger in the direction of the snipers. 

There was electricity one morning so I watched the Victory in Europe Celebrations on an old TV.  Europe's leaders hailed 'fifty years of peace in Europe'.  Two hours later, sitting in Unis, I helplessly heard a woman scream herself to death on Sniper Alley.  Days later a white phosphorous shell landed right below the office windows.  I had no idea what white phosphorous was at the time.  Why would I?  Why should anyone?  But an elderly lady from Sarajevo who worked with me clearly did know because she pushed a wet towel into my face and told me to breathe through it.  Around that same time she made some pretty awful goulash one day, which I sat down to eat just as two bullets pierced through the plasterboard walls.  I told her I was too shocked to eat it.  She told me to move to another room and not to come back until I had eaten it all.  Refusal to eat is never an option where Bosnians are concerned, not in any situation.

I was becoming gradually more fearful as weeks and months passed.  I had a bullet-proof blanket which I believed would protect me from night shelling if I just made sure that it covered my feet.  It was just a regular blanket.  One night I took three times the recommended dose of strong sleeping tablets that a friend gave me on a night of heavy shelling.  I didn't sleep a wink.  Sometimes I would wake in the morning and be too terrified to leave my apartment.  But suddenly, somehow, adrenalin would kick in, strangely from the feet and up through the legs, then into the rest of the body and brain.  I would then just grab my keys, lock the door, go out and start running.  You had to just live and to live you had to just run. 

In the midst of the breathtaking inhumanity of the siege of Sarajevo, there was an unbelievable and unbreakable sense of humanity.  Young men would risk their lives to get water for old women; children would smile when you’d expect them to scream; people would share whatever they had with others who had nothing; and ordinary Sarajevans would apologise at length for the state of their apartments (sorry about the state of our couch, sorry about the state of our coffee cups), their English language skills, their ‘fucking politicians’, the state of their lives in general, and other things for which they should have been the last people in the world to apologise. 

Sorry, they would say to me, that you never visited Sarajevo before the war when it was the most beautiful city in the world.  I was sorry about that too, I’m still sorry about that.

And in the midst of all the death and terrible injury that the Bosnian Serb Army caused in besieged Sarajevo, there was always an amazing liveliness in the city.  I would regularly visit Club Obala, and would almost always feel a little intimidated as I would almost always be the only foreigner there.  But it was an incredible place, absolutely key to the cultural scene of the siege.  I would wonder at the appropriate names of bands popular in Sarajevo at the time: Massive Attack, Bad Religion, Rage Against the Machine.  A friend told me in Obala one night that an old message from Ratko Mladic ordered the people of Sarajevo to surrender and Rage Against the Machine singing “Fuck you I won't do what you tell me' seemed like the only appropriate response.

I would constantly listen to Radio Zid.  On a visit to Radio Zid during my first weeks in Sarajevo, I was shown film footage of the siege set to the music of Bob Marley's 'Redemption Song'.  I have never been moved so much by anything on a screen.

I learned to play pool well and learned to speak Bosnian badly at FiS.  Just as in Club Obala, people would party like they never did before the siege and never have since.  They would party like there’s no tomorrow because you never did know that for someone in the crowd, possibly you, there may be no tomorrow.

Occasionally the bars would be raided by 'narcotics' 'police', who were really a form of press-gang and nothing more than thugs.  Not only held captive by the Bosnian Serb Army and their maniacal leaders in Pale, Sarajevans were often reminded by a sinister minority amongst them, on the payroll of the ‘fucking politicians’, that they were not free to live, never mind not being free to leave.

Leaving was always an option for me, not a simple procedure but still always an option.  It separated me from my friends, who were unable to leave.  For my friends and their families even the relative safety of Sarajevo's small neighbouring towns – Tarčin, Pazarić, Visoko, Kiseljak - were as far away as the moon.  I went from Sarajevo to Kiseljak one time, over the mountains in the winter, and it took 14 hours.  It is now at the very most a forty minute drive.  I spent many months under siege but my friends and their families were besieged for years: unable to even dream of the outside world, unable sometimes to even leave their basements. 

As the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege is just days away, I recall Sarajevo’s ordinary heroism which lay in the fact that ordinary Sarajevans were able to endure years of savage and utterly surreal brutality while at the same time remaining astonishingly decent, kind and civilized.