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Bosnian Gravedigger Dodges Death to Bury the War’s Casualties

December 16, 1993

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzogovina (AP) _ Haris Subasic has one of Sarajevo’s most dangerous jobs. He’s a gravedigger.

Seven of his colleagues are buried in the former soccer field, where he shovels old turf and soft dirt. Another 14 have been wounded. Almost every day, mortar shells rain down or snipers take potshots as the men add to row after row of fresh graves.

″Of course I’m nervous,″ the 23-year-old Subasic said Wednesday after finishing preparations for the burial of a victim from the shelling a day earlier. ″But there’s nothing else I can do.″

He estimates he’s dug about 150 graves in the last six months.

The city has about 280 cemeteries, many in former parks and other open stretches of land.

The soccer field was turned into a graveyard when two adjacent cemeteries filled up. But with an estimated 13,650 people buried in Sarajevo since the start of the war 20 months ago, it’s also rapidly running out of room.

The location offers little protection from Serb gunners on nearby hills. It’s wide open, next to the tattered stadium where opening ceremonies were held for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

″Almost every day, the snipers shoot. They can see you like you’re in the palm of their hand,″ said Subasic, a driver for a funeral company before the war. ″I dive to the ground. You get used to it, like all the people in Sarajevo.″

Shells can be even deadlier. Four people died at one funeral.

Oblivious to the danger, children play on a nearby hillside, climbing atop low buildings to run across the corrugated-steel roofs or swing from a dangling metal cable that once carried electricity.

A few people wander through, taking shortcuts or paying their respects.

Most funerals are held in early morning, when fog often shrouds the valley, or at dusk, when dark coats make people harder to spot. So Subasic works from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every day, goes home for a long lunch, then returns in the mid-afternoon.

Mourners gather in the shadow of an embankment about 8 feet high so they’re out of one line of fire. A steel shipping container provides a little more cover, though some bullets can still punch right through.

One group of Muslim mourners waited by the embankment until nearly dark to bury two of their dead earlier this week, mindful of the mortar shells that killed four people in a nearby market just days before.

The younger mourners, all men, huddled behind the shipping container and a garbage bin. The older ones knelt a few feet away on the muddy ground, seemingly uncaring about the prospect of death.

There were no sobs or tears. The hundreds of fresh mounds provided mute testimony that they have seen this too frequently, and will again.

The imam’s haunting prayers were punctuated by the distant thump of mortars, the rattle of machine guns and the thud of anti-aircraft guns.

When the ceremony was over, the pallbearers lifted the blue cloth-covered litters and trudged up over the hill to pay their brief, final respects at the graveside before slipping away into the night.

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