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During a War, the `Daily Miracle' Continues Publication

By Blaine Harden
The Washington Post

SARAJEVO, Bosnia

Through five months of nearly continuous bombardment, the only consumer item available every day in this suffering city has been the newspaper Oslobodzenje. The staff now edits the paper in an atom-bomb shelter.

Above ground, most of the twin nine-story glass and steel towers of what was one of Bosnia's finest office complexes has been melted into a black glob by four major fires. All the fires were started by artillery shells, which continue each day to pummel the ruins.

What used to be the ground-floor newsroom now lies directly under the guns of powerful Serb nationalist forces ringing the city. Using weapons ranging from tank cannon to night-vision sniper rifles, Serb militiamen fire round-the-clock at a range of 100 yards at whoever and whatever comes and goes from the newspaper office.

Tuesday morning, the driver of a city garbage truck was found slumped behind the wheel on a street near the building, killed by a sniper's bullet. The newspaper distributors who once carried Oslobodzenje to all parts of the city no longer come to work. All 700 newsstands that once sold the paper have been blown up or shattered by bullets.

Since no one else is willing to do it, Oslobodzenje -- which means Liberation -- is delivered and sold by the journalists who write and edit it. They toss bundles of papers into the trunks and back seats of their own bullet-riddled cars and sell them on the streets.

The war has been almost as hard on the journalists who put out the paper as on the building that houses it. A reporter named Kjasif Smajlovic was killed last April by Serb gunmen in his bureau office in the east Bosnian city of Zvornik. His body was last seen being dragged by the heels down a flight of stairs.

A photographer, Salko Hondo, was killed in midsummer by a mortar shell that landed in central Sarajevo while he was taking pictures of residents drawing water from a public tap. Two other reporters disappeared a short while later when Serb militia forces overran the northwest Bosnian town of Doboj. Many Oslobodzenje reporters based outside Sarajevo have stopped writing, apparently out of fear that their copy could cost them their lives.

Like many of Sarajevo's prewar institutions, Oslobodzenje's newsroom was a place where members of Bosnia's three major communal groups -- Slavic Muslims, Serbs and Croats -- worked together and liked it that way. The diversity in the newsroom mirrored the diversity of the republic as a whole.

It was a good newspaper, winner of the Yugoslav Newspaper of the Year award in 1989. Before the war, it took an independent editorial line that denounced the factional politics of Serb, Croat and Muslim nationalists. It even won a landmark lawsuit that struck down an attempt by the three groups to apportion senior editorial positions at the paper on the basis of communal identification.

For this reason and because the paper's views influenced so many people in Bosnia, Oslobodzenje had been a favorite whipping boy for all three nationalist groups. But once the war started, it was the heavily armed Serbs who shifted their attacks from rhetoric to high explosives.

Still, that did not alter Oslobodzenje's editorial support for an independent multicultural Bosnia in which Serbs, Muslims and Croats could live together in harmony. It has often disagreed publicly with the Muslim-led Bosnian government, and it continued its longstanding practice of printing in both the Cyrillic script used by Serbs and the Latin script used by Croats and Muslims, alternating its pages between the two.

The daily appearance of the paper confounds the political philosophy of militant Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who claims that Serbs can no longer live in peace with Muslims and Croats. The siege of Sarajevo was launched by Karadzic's militia forces supposedly to save Serbs here from their non-Serb neighbors, even though Serbs and non-Serbs had lived peacefully here side by side for centuries.

"Why do they hate us? Because we symbolize a Bosnia that they say is impossible," said Kemal Kurspahic, who is on leave from his position as Oslobodzenje's editor-in-chief. "We still have 30 percent Serbs (roughly the prewar percentage of Serbs in Bosnia) with by-lines in the paper every day. They really hate us for that."

Kurspahic's right leg was shattered in a car accident while he was on his way to the office. As is common in this gun-shy town, the car was traveling at 90 miles an hour to elude snipers; it collided with a police car.