Sarajevo: Halftime in the Super Bowl of horrors?

(a dispatch from Bosnia originally printed in the July 6, 1997 Bimingham News)

On May 17 I arrived in Sarajevo for the third time in four years, accompanied by a colleague from academia who would help me organize software training classes for Bosnian land planners from various local institutions. In between appointments, we sought out friends made on past visits. That's how we found ourselves in BasCarsija, the old Turkish quarter of Sarajevo, having lunch with a student I had met during the siege of the city in 1994.

Though the restaurant where we dined had been rebuilt three times during the war, the food was excellent and the atmosphere still retained some of the charm that made the old town so popular with tourists in times past. It was a beautiful spring day, the sights and smells of the marketplace intoxicating. So I was taken by surprise when my young friend, Mehar, asked me, "Do you like Sarajevo better the way it is now or the way it was during the siege?"

What a strange question, I thought. Sarajevo certainly isn't a garden spot--if it were, people like Dr. Johnson and myself might be here on vacation with family members, hiking scenic trails in the surrounding mountains instead of stalking urban ruins--but neither is it the hellhole I found on my first visit, in 1994. Then it was a city on the brink of extinction: electric power, clean water and communications with the outside world were at best sporadic; half the population had fled; those who remained either starved or existed on a subsistence diet of UN relief rations; and those who had somehow retained the stamina to move around the city became random targets for Serb snipers hidden in the steep hills surrounding it. Nerves were frayed to the breaking point, including my own--the day of my departure I count as one of my luckiest.

Mehar, too, had been lucky. He was one of the few young, native Sarajevans who had been able to escape during the siege, living for the subsequent three years in Washington, D.C. Only recently had Mehar returned to the hometown he loved, to find he doesn't like much of what he sees.

It seems others have gravitated back to Sarajevo. Serbs who spent the war in Belgrade and war profiteers are returning with money in their pockets to buy old businesses cheaply or open new shops and cafes. Like the "carpetbaggers" who descended on the American South during the Reconstruction era, these entrepreneurs fan simmering resentments.

Worse, said Mehar, are outlaw Serbs who live in nearby areas of the Republic of Srpska. They are alleged to have robbed and killed several taxi drivers, then sought refuge across a line of demarcation that runs through an outlying Sarajevo neighborhood where Srpska meets the Bosnian Federation (its partner in the shaky Republic of Bosnia produced by the Dayton Agreement).

Then there are the "primitives," poorly educated refugees who have been ethnically cleansed from rural areas. They have suffered great losses and many carry especially horrid memories of the war; with nowhere else to go, they fled to the city. According to Mehar, these people make up over fifty percent of the current population of Sarajevo. It is understandable, yet ironic, that Sarajevans who fought for four years to defend a multiethnic city look askance at the strange costumes and traditions that identify their dislocated "country cousins."

Another irony is that Mehar's own friends are jealous because he had opportunities they were denied during the years he was gone, like the chance to continue his education and the freedom to shop for food in grocery stores. Once again the architect of ethnic cleansing, Bosnian Serb strongman Radovan Karadzic--psychiatrist by trade and murderer by choice--has proven he can turn old friends against each other.

A few days later, another person asked if I liked Sarajevo better now or the way it was during the siege. Dino, a young Bosniac (Bosnian Muslim) veteran, had been a good soldier during the war. He was proud to fight because he believed in what he was fighting for. Now he feels betrayed.

"As long as the politicians who started the war are in power those people that wanted to live together peacefully are unable to go back to their normal lives," he says. "The people are like sheep, uncertain and afraid for the future, they follow their leaders even if they disagree with their policies."

There is little evidence of factional militarism in Sarajevo, but Dino's words rang true when I visited outlying areas of Bosnia. Perhaps the Dayton peace is only halftime in the Super Bowl of horrors. Traveling through villages and small Bosnian cities on the way to Mostar, Gorazde and Bihac I saw the graffiti of local fans (the Croat nationalist HVO in Travnik, the hardline Serbian SDS near Pale, and the predominantly-Muslim SDA in areas controlled by Bosniacs), their banners proudly displayed in the windows of homes and commercial buildings, and many young players drilling for the big game.

Untrusting of NATO's resolve to enforce the terms of the Dayton Agreement, many feel they have good reason to support their teams--the future may be determined by how well they do in the field. Though all sides believe they lost the last game, they know how to settle old scores in the Balkans.

Dino wants to leave again because he sees no future for himself in today's Sarajevo. "The only people who want to stay are those not from here," he said. I mulled his disillusionment and finally began to understand its source, and that of the question "Which do you like better, Sarajevo then or now?"

During the siege, aspects of the material world were not important; Sarajevans worked for virtually no pay except the shared goal of survival. Meanwhile, life went on: people fell in love, started families, shared heartaches and the maintenance of a community that existed under the rubble of buildings being demolished by the enemy's shells. A population abandoned became one; their unity could not be destroyed year after year. Their abasement became a garment of glory.

Strangers were welcome in Sarajevo during the siege, because to have come there was to make oneself a target like the rest of the city's inmates. Now strangers are distrusted. Foreign bureaucrats who drive big cars and make big salaries decide what will be rebuilt, and where. Input from the Sarajevans who will have to inhabit what results is only a secondary consideration, at best. (Our offer of aid to Sarajevan planners, including software training, is designed to help amplify their voice in these deliberations.)

The logic of peace has blurred lines that once distinguished good from evil for Bosnians trapped by the siege. Though peace is widely extolled, warlords still wield substantial political power in all parts of the Bosnian Republic. One-party rule went out with the Communists, but to get ahead in Bosnia it has become increasingly imperative to hold membership in the party that dominates the area in which one lives. Diplomats from the NATO nations insist capitalism and democracy offer the surest means to prosperity and freedom, and yet never has poverty and despair been more widespread.

My hosts in Sarajevo, Majda and Sasha, met and married during the siege. Majda is an economist for the city planning institute. She listened attentively one night over dinner, as I recounted the recurring question posed to me, and Sasha responded with a story from the siege.

One day he and a friend went to find wood to burn. Winters are brutally cold in tributary valleys of the Dinaric Alps such as the one where Sarajevo is situated. As electricity was almost always absent and once-sylvan green spaces had been stripped bare early on, the continuous quest for firewood faced by virtually everyone in the city sent foragers farther and farther afield. Sasha and his friend ventured several miles out into the snow, but their effort was rewarded. They soon found themselves laden with so many logs and sticks that they could not walk straight. But they had strayed dangerously close to enemy lines.

As they headed home, they tottered through mortar and sniper fire. Barely able to move, still they refused to drop their hard-won bounty and run like sane men. They could only laugh at each other, and their mutual predicament, and slog on.

Sasha roared with mirth at the memory. Then his eyes met Majda's and registered her shock. And in her reaction I found my answer to the question.

Yes, peace is a fragile process; the turning of a cheek, galling. Certainly, democracy and capitalism offer new opportunities to criminals as well as to law-abiding citizens. Without doubt, it is risky to trust strangers bearing gifts and diplomats bearing promises.

But nothing could be worse than the ways things were.

Jay Craig

(Jay Craig is director of the Global Network for Rebuilding and can be reached at or 1-205-933-2159. He wrote this for The News.)

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