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Lights, Water, Action: Life in Sarajevo Returns to the Basics

IT'S been months since Vera Kotorsan, a Sarajevo grandmother, has taken a bath. But yesterday, as her son-in-law went to fetch water, Mrs. Kotorsan said the time had come.

Kotorsan's joy at such a simple pleasure was prompted by the return of gas, electricity, and some water to the battered Bosnian capital after almost six months of deprivation.

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Serb forces cut off utilities in May as they continued a 3-1/2 year siege of the city. Sarajevans had grown accustomed to broken UN promises to break the siege and protect them.

Only after the US pushed NATO to bomb the Serbs into retreating last month did life begin to return to normal here. And people cheered Tuesday's resignation of the UN's unpopular envoy, Yasushi Akashi, seen as too lenient toward the Bosnian Serbs.

Serb attacks on the capital, killing hundreds, were by far the worst part of the siege. But the deprivation of utilities made life a tedious regimen of fetching water and chopping wood.

To bathe, residents had to carry water in canisters from a spring or public water spigots, then pour cold buckets over their heads. For cooking or heating, they had to chop and carry wood.

At night, they huddled around candles, longing for the day they would be able to run their television sets, turn on lights, and listen to music. But their six months of urban camping ended, at least for the time being, as gas and electricity began to flow into the city on Tuesday. Water was expected to follow shortly.

The restoration of utilities to Sarajevo was the precondition to a much-heralded, American-brokered cease-fire agreement.

Armies cooperate

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In the days before the cease-fire was to take effect, opposing armies worked together to demine areas around a key electricity line supplying Sarajevo. Once the area was demined, military engineers, aided by the United Nations, had to repair the line that was badly damaged during the last 41 months of fighting.

A Bosnian delegation had to fly to Moscow in an 11th-hour effort to persuade the Russian gas company, Gazprom, to turn on the gas supply despite the Bosnian government's $100 million debt that it has accrued over the past four years.

The delegation also had to convince the Russians that the pipelines, which have undergone repairs by British engineers, were in adequate working condition.

Although the frenzied efforts failed to bring about the cease-fire on time, they did bring light and warmth to the battered capital, radically altering the lives of Sarajevo's 280,000 residents.

''I don't think anybody understands what it's like to live without water, gas, or electricity day after day, month after month, year after year,'' says Raza Dizdarevic from her meat shop in Sarajevo's old town.

''When I get home, I'm going to do the laundry, make coffee, do the cooking, and heat water for a bath,'' Ms. Dizdarevic adds.

Music, merry maids return

As electricity began to trickle into Sarajevo neighborhoods, traditional Bosnian folk music blared from the windows of Hajduk Veljkova Street, only to compete with the new rage, ''technobeat,'' thumping from neighboring apartments.

The cacaphonous blend, however, did not drown out the roar of vacuum cleaners and television sets blaring from the windows lining the old town's street, where people have had only some hours of rationed electricity each week.

On adjoining Hriste Boteva Street, anxious residents walked around their homes flipping switches to no avail. Electricity had not reached the silent street. ''I feel cheated,'' says Lejla Hasegic. ''Every few minutes I try the lights, but nothing.''

The electricity finally reached the street at 11 p.m. Tuesday. And residents, accustomed to going to bed early to sleep out the cold darkness,stayed up to do household chores and watch television until the early morning hours. ''I couldn't believe it when I woke up, and we still had electricity,'' Ms. Hasegic says.

But as the Sarajevo cityscape lit up the sky for the first time in months, and gas began to flow through the pipes, warnings were issued over state radio and television: The electricity will be rationed, and the gas is dangerous.

The repaired electricity network is a ''cobbled together patchwork'' designed to get ''bits and pieces'' of the city working again, according to Steven Bowen, a spokesman for the UN office responsible overseeing the utility networks. Residents now have access to limited quantities of gas and electricity and risk losing their privileges if they exceed their rations.

'Unsafe' gas factor

Prior to the war in Bosnia, most Bosnians heated their houses with electricity, but the limited supplies are not adequate for electric heating. When the electricity was first cut to the capital at the beginning of the war, residents dug up their streets to create makeshift connections to the city's main gas line.

The connections were crude and dangerous, often leaking gas into houses and apartments. Because the gas was not odorized, leaks were difficult to detect. Nearly 2,000 people in the city died in gas explosions, usually caused by lighting a candle in a room that had filled with unscented gas.

The British Overseas Development Office has repaired thousands of illegal connections to make gas a safer heating option for the city, and state radio has begun a gas-safety campaign, warning residents of the dangers and instructing them of how to avoid leaks.

But most residents say they do not believe the new, almost-signed cease-fire that is bringing about the restoration of utilities to the capital will end the bitter war being waged across Bosnia.

But they welcome the developments. ''I have grown to hate candles so much these months,'' says Mirijana Malic. ''I never want to burn one again.''

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