'Music Is Beyond Politics': When U2 Went to Bosnia in 1997

Fifteen years ago, U2 brought music and a message to post-war Sarajevo.

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Reuters

Fifteen years ago this weekend, on Sept. 23, 1997, pop music changed the world.

Well, briefly at least. On a Tuesday night in a bomb-scarred Olympic stadium, Irish rock band U2 played the first major pop concert to take place in the recuperating city of Sarajevo since the end of the Bosnian war, in hopes of erasing the ethnic tensions that had overwhelmed Yugoslavia, if only for the duration of a two-act set.

"If there's any message, it's a simple one, a banal one," frontman Bono explained to CNN. "It's that music is beyond politics."

Famously, Bono's ballooning humanitarian efforts would later earn him a reputation—not a good one—as a "messianic do-gooder" and an overambitious, globe-trotting collector of vanity projects. In 2002, the cover of Time would ask cheekily, "Can Bono Save the World?," and in 2009, the Daily Mail complained that while Bono was certainly passionate about relieving Third World debt, he acted "as if he has the entire solution to it in his leather trousers." But U2 hadn't come to Sarajevo with plans to save the nation or reverse the course of history. Bringing a good time to some young people for a few hours was good enough.

Sarajevo had emerged only two years earlier from the longest siege in modern military history. Serb aggressors had surrounded the city for 44 months between March of 1992 and December of 1995, starving and mistreating its citizens. For three and a half years, Sarajevans were dependent on food and fuel trafficked into the city through a kilometer-long underground tunnel, continually taking cover from the hundreds of mortar shells that fell on the city every day. According to war reporter Charlotte Eagar,

"Old ladies staggered home, hauling prams and homemade go-carts laden with plastic containers of water. ... Unable to collect firewood, people burned first their furniture and then their books. And yet they died during the brutal mountain winters. ... Both the shelling and the cold were indiscriminate in meting out death."

By the time the war ended in 1995, more than 10,000 Bosnians had been killed in Sarajevo.

Bono had visited the country shortly afterward, and promised to return and "bring the band along next time." The 1997 concert was a fulfillment of that promise.

By then, the once-magnificent city—the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics—that had become a death camp almost overnight had started rebuilding itself. Sarajevo's zoo was being restored, and arts patrons swooped in to furnish the wounded city with musical instruments and library books. Guerrilla artists had begun beautifying the streets with "Sarajevo roses"—red resin poured into the scars and divots made by mortar explosions. So at the insistence of Sarajevo organizers, this would not be a small charity concert—rather, Sarajevo would be a full-scale, ticket-selling tour stop on the band's global PopMart tour.

The 60 trucks carrying U2's massive soundstage had to navigate narrow mountain roads to even get to Sarajevo; nevertheless, a team of 450 assembled the stage and sound system in Koševo Stadium.

"It's just a miracle that we're here, really," said guitarist The Edge to a swarm of reporters that greeted the band upon their arrival. "The fact that we can come and put on not just a concert but the same concert that we put on in Paris and New York and London [is] maybe a symbol for the people of Sarajevo that things are getting back to normal."

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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