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`A Hunger for Life'

The tranquil appearance of Bosnia's capital belies the quiet desperation of its citizens

THE spires of gray-brown smoke rising day and night above Sarajevo's rooftops no longer mark the impacts of the Bosnian Serb shells that lashed the city for almost two years.

These days, the fumes roil from fires lit in futile battles to reduce the hills of garbage accumulating on street corners, parking lots, and squares throughout the city.

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Pedestrians strolling the alleyways and ball-chasing children rollicking in bomb-pitted playgrounds are seemingly inured to the fly-blown mounds of trash in which stray dogs - and some people - scavenge for food.

But the fetid odor of rotting refuse snaps the visitor out of the tranquility induced by the end of the Bosnian Serb barrages six months ago and back to the reality of a city still under siege.

The threat of NATO airstrikes has stopped the slaughter that claimed more than 10,000 lives, easing the worst of the suffering endured by the city's 360,000 residents.

Internationally assisted repairs to the electricity, gas, water, and telephone systems have partially restored some of the modern urban comfort Sarajevans once enjoyed.

Markets and shops are full of food, clothing, and other goods, and thousands of strollers meander nightly along the main pedestrian mall, passing ice-cream vendors and countless outdoor cafes that have sprung up.

Schools have reopened, and residents can enjoy free art shows, plays, or concerts in the grand Austro-Hungarian-era opera house.

The United Nations and the club of governments that run it, no longer under pressure from the gruesome television pictures of civilian massacres, hold all this up as progress toward peace.

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But the situation is deceiving. Sarajevo lives in a kind of suspended animation, a nether world where the attempts to deny the war are mocked by the siege, the wait for a third winter of war, and ever-present death.

In Sarajevo, they call it ``imitation life.''

While the shelling has stopped, combat flares almost constantly on the front lines that knife out of the encroaching mountains into the heart of the city, over which the corpses of shell-gutted buildings stand as silent sentinels.

Despite a UN-brokered antisniper agreement, sniper rounds still rip across intersections to maim or kill. A Bosnian Serb gun keeps shut the only route to the outside. UN officials admit the gun violates the heavy- weapons exclusion zone, but claim they cannot remove it. A six-year-old girl was among its victims last week.

Most homes receive an hour of water daily. Electricity and gas supplies are erratic. Power cuts stall the limited tram service. Books and paper aren't available for schools, most of which are too full of holes to withstand the winter cold.

Only a handful of traffic lights function, and the few civilian vehicles that share the roadways with fleets of UN vehicles run on fuel sold on the black market by UN troops.

Commercial goods can only enter Sarajevo through a Bosnian Army-dug tunnel. But exorbitant prices have left most people dependent on foreign aid handouts.

Without jobs, most people idle away the hours on doorsteps or sip endless cups of coffee at cafes until the 10 p.m. curfew.

Alcoholism, drug abuse, and suicides, especially among the young, are said to be skyrocketing because few see any prospect for the future. Only interminable war.

``We are alive, but dead; dead, but alive,'' explains Fera, a young musician whose main occupation is finding ways to evade another term in the Army. ``The world should know us as the living dead. But we are just ordinary human beings with a hunger for life.''

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