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Sarajevo Market: Barometer of Normality

Commerce resumes where mortar fell, but residents are cautious

FOR a month or two after the mortar fell, the corner of the market where it landed that Saturday morning in February remained cordoned off with ribbons, and piles of bouquets marked the spot where 68 people died in the single most deadly explosion of the two-year war in the Balkans.

Bustling commerce has since nudged aside sentiment. The ribbons and flowers have gone, and amid the crowded stalls, the only sign of that fateful atrocity is a pock-marked depression in the concrete floor.

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The market itself is a good barometer - perhaps the best - of the upsurge of seeming normality, which has been gathering momentum in the wake of the cease-fire imposed around Sarajevo by the United Nations and NATO after the Feb. 5 mortar attack.

Stalls that a month or two ago displayed a pitifully meager array of goods at astronomical prices are now piled high with fresh produce at prices close to those in Zagreb, Croatia, or in Belgrade.

Onions, at 60 cents a pound, now cost one-tenth of what they commanded a short while ago - if they could be found. Eggs, virtually unobtainable before, now cost a mere $6 for a full tray with more piled on top.

Tomatoes, bananas, fresh new potatoes, cucumbers, and green peppers are displayed in gleaming heaps, all at similarly reduced prices. It is a breathtaking cornucopia for those who have lived through two years of siege and privation.

Anyone visiting the city for the first time, if set down in one of the less-damaged areas, might be excused for thinking he had arrived in any moderately prosperous European town. For anyone who saw Sarajevo in its darkest hours, it has been transformed almost beyond recognition.

Streets, which were deserted but for a few hunched figures scurrying in search of water, food, or fuel, are now teeming with people strolling at leisure in bright summer clothes. Sidewalk cafes, ice-cream vendors, pizza parlors all do a brisk trade.

On ``Sniper's Alley,'' the nickname given to the open thoroughfare that runs the length of the city, thousands of people wait in line out in the open before cramming aboard the trams that now ply up and down the city throughout the day. Before the cease-fire, the only things moving on Sniper's Alley were armored vehicles and the occasional daredevil in a ``soft-skin'' (normal, nor armored) car, driving at breakneck speed. Nowadays, assiduous traffic-cops are there to make sure people obey the one-way system and stop at the revived traffic lights.

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To an outsider, the half-mile line of cars waiting at the gas station might be a sign of abnormality. But for the Sarajevans, the miracle is that gasoline and diesel fuel have suddenly become available at the pump, trucked in by an enterprising entrepreneur at prices not much higher than prewar levels.

The restoration of the trappings of normality has been an incremental process, starting with the Feb. 10 cease-fire. People gradually ventured out as confidence grew.

The big qualitative change began on March 23, when the UN mediated an accord that allowed a few secondary routes across the confrontation lines in, and around, the city to be opened to a restricted flow of people and goods.

The agreement has worked better than anyone dared hope. While getting in and out of town is still far from easy - UN military commanders shy away from claiming the siege is over - the limited movement now possible is responsible for the new flow of goods and the collapse of siege prices.

Public utilities - water, electricity, gas - have also been gradually improving as UN-guarded local repair teams have gained access to damaged plants.

But nobody kids themselves that things are really normal, or that peace is here to stay. Not yet. And because of that, nobody can make plans on that assumption.

``Yes, conditions are much better now, but we are still living in a cage,'' says one Sarajevan. ``I can't just get on a plane and fly out of here. And we all know the cease-fire could collapse at any moment.''

The truce between mainly Muslim government troops and the encircling Serbs is not supported by any political agreement on peace for Bosnia. Every day brings cease-fire violations - a level of 100 a day is described by the UN forces as ``stable.'' Most days, someone, somewhere in town, is wounded by a sniper's bullet, sometimes killed.

Until there is a peace accord, and until the major routes and the airport are opened up to anybody who wants to come or go, that is what this normality will remain: provisional and relative, not the real thing.

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