Recently returned from a month's visit to Bosnia, I am still trying to sort out the larger meaning of many small tragedies to which her ruins bear witness. Because the purpose of my trip was to gather site data for a group of American design academics who wish to aid in reconstruction planning, my itinerary took me to places where the rubble lay deep, where grief is as familiar as a neighbor's face. In Bosnia, tragedy is so common as to have lost its irony.
I arrived home to learn the Bosnian Olympic team had been staying in Pell City, and that their head coach had read my letter from Sarajevo in the June 30 News and wanted to meet me. We missed each other by a day, so I'll probably never discover how his athletes maintained the drive and stamina to train through four years of deprivation. But I can imagine their bemusement during last week's Olympic opening night, standing shoulder to shoulder among 10,000 fellow athletes representing 197 nations, before 80,000 wildly cheering fans in the center of a grand, new sports complex, as Atlanta Olympic czar Billy Payne extolled to a worldwide viewing audience of 3 billion the unifying virtues of sport.
Undoubtedly, someone gave a similar speech in Serbo-Croatian twelve years ago. Today, Sarajevo's 1984 Winter Olympics grounds (at left) are literally covered with grave markers; the roof of the skating palace was long ago collapsed by artillery fire; the ski slopes are riddled with bunkers from which the Serbs fired on the city for four years; and high-rise hotels that housed foreigners ebullient at Yugoslavia's then new-found openness are now scorched and pockmarked from rocket hits. So much for the unifying virtues of sport.
Perhaps irony is seen best at a distance. Truth is another matter, for Bosnians have learned a couple of cruel lessons that some Americans have missed from the vantage point of insular neighborhoods and corporate suites: community is not a gift, it's a reward; and while ethnic harmony requires effort, its alternative is all-consuming.
Early in my latest visit to Sarajevo, I accompanied a correspondent friend from Voice of America to a Turkish tea room where she planned to record exotic music for a taped report. There I met Minura (at right), a lovely, energetic journalist from Turkey who had chosen to live in Sarajevo because of her commitment to the survival of a multiethnic Bosnia, leaving behind a husband and daughter in Istanbul. Minura's reporting from the city's front lines made her something of a local heroine over the past four years. As her story unraveled for me over the sweet tea and frenetic music of her beloved homeland, I realized that we had something else in common besides a concern for Bosnia.
Two years ago anti-aircraft fire closed the Sarajevo airport for a month, completely cutting off the city and its inhabitants from the outside world. I was one of the inmates. A ten-day trip turned into two weeks, three weeks, then four. Every week I made the trip down Sniper Alley to the airport, lugging a duffel bag stuffed with city maps and government papers (items that could brand me a spy, if discovered by the Serb militiamen blockading the road to the terminal), only to be turned away, all flights still grounded. One day the planes flew, and the Serbs neglected to search my duffel. I remember sitting alone in the dark, rattling iron box of a UN armored personnel carrier's passenger compartment, weeping with relief as it lumbered toward the terminal.
Around that same time, Minura had taken that route; the UN armored personnel carrier in which she rode was waylaid by Serb militiamen at the same roadblock. But here our stories diverge: Minura was identified as an enemy and detained, and tortured for the next twenty-eight days.
She survived, and stayed, and has come to know the city well. With her as my guide, I examined Sarajevo's haggard remains from the inside out. Together we ventured close to the edge again, and felt the hot breath of hatred full in the face.
There is a sliver of west Sarajevo still controlled by Serbian nationalists, an apparent concession by negotiators of the Dayton peace accord to Serb demands of continued hegemony over some small portion of this city they so ardently sought to destroy. Nothing separates this enclave from the rest of Sarajevo except a street. No signs mark the line. Minura warned me that stepping beyond the curb would put me in the Republic of Serpska, and big trouble.
As we stood on the curb, we witnessed Serbs passing unhindered across the line and returning from the free part of Sarajevo. But others did not have that choice: if a Muslim or Croat crossed into Serb territory, there was a good chance he would not come back.
From the curb, I smiled and made friendly gestures to a child standing with her mother on the other side of the street. Such gestures are not common at this location; they must have drawn attention. Immediately, two Serbs approached and asked if I was with CNN. They began to rant, finally threatening to kill us. As we began walking slowly away, one car full of young men zoomed past and stopped to our left. As they got out, another group was approaching from the right, trying to outflank us. But they were too late to cut off our retreat from that gray area that separates darkness from light in Sarajevo.
That day we also toured former front line suburbs that Dayton had compelled the Serbs to give back. We started at the Bridge of Unity and crossed into Grbavica.
The destruction on the front lines was similar to the pattern I had seen in the devastated city of Mostar. Many buildings were gutted shells whose roofs had been blown away by mortar bombs. Walls that remained standing were shrapnel-spattered and porous as Swiss cheese, the work of countless rocket attacks.
Behind the walls of innocent-looking shops and homes that commanded views of the city, we discovered bunkered sniper windows. Typically, a muddy path led from the window back to rooms protected from return fire by solid walls. Snipers avoid combat, especially those who target women and children.
We visited an old lady who had once lived in a beautiful home in a wonderful location overlooking Sarajevo. During the siege, her neighborhood had been occupied by the Serbs and her house used as a sniper location. It was beautiful no more; she had lost everything.
The soldiers had left her little else than crude drawings covering the walls of the house. The self-portrait of one man included the note, "I have lived here 9 months, I will come back and kill you." Beside it, his depiction of the return: blood pouring out of a woman being stabbed by a man with a big knife.