Midnight in Sarajevo

A city that was once the center of the world's horrified attention is now a safe place again -- but a sad place, where corruption reigns, opportunities are rare, and the young and the talented only want to get out

IT was always difficult to get into Sarajevo. The city sits in a bowl at the bottom of steep hills leading up to a series of mountains. Topographically, the nearest thing in America to the Bosnian capital is Aspen, Colorado, another place where the hills seem to rise right out of the town. Before the collapse of Yugoslavia and the beginning of the siege, Sarajevo, too, was a resort. But even in those last good days it was a peculiarly inaccessible resort. The airport was undependable and subject to fogs that closed it for days at a time. The roads into the city were indifferently maintained and in places badly graded.

During the war Sarajevo's weather and Sarajevo's isolation were constant preoccupations, weighing on both the Sarajevans -- for whom they were matters of life and death -- and the journalists and aid workers who regularly traveled in and out of the city. Paradoxes abounded. On a foggy or snowy day the snipers could not see well enough, even through their high-powered scopes, to hit their targets -- the civilians in Sarajevo's streets -- with any degree of accuracy. But bad weather also meant that humanitarian airlifts probably would be halted and visits from foreign dignitaries delayed. In the metaphorical sense as well as the literal, the situation on the ground would be frozen. The killing would temporarily be brought to a halt, which was welcome -- but Sarajevo would disappear, fall off the television screen of international attention, as the snows fell or the mists descended. This was dangerous; attention was all that kept the Serbs from escalating to wholesale slaughter.

There was always a duality in Sarajevo's status during those years of horror. On one level was the symbolic Sarajevo. This Sarajevo could at times dominate the world stage; it was the most famous place on the globe, the battleground where ethno-fascists and those who believed in nationality based on citizenship were fighting it out. The sufferings of the inhabitants of this Sarajevo weighed on the collective conscience of educated, affluent people in Western Europe and North America in a way that few human catastrophes of the past half century had done. On another level was a place you might call Sarajevo in its own right. This was a mid-sized Yugoslav city, where before the war people had lived relatively well, worked relatively little, and not asked themselves very deep questions. It had been in a modest way cosmopolitan, yes, but it had not been on the front line of anything except perhaps the Balkan dolce vita, and it had not been the capital of anything except Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During the siege the two Sarajevos were almost in competition. Four years after the shelling stopped, the Sarajevo that endures is the smaller, more provincial one. In retrospect it is clear that the other, grander, identity was as much the function of the world's expectations as of local Bosnian realities. There is nothing surprising about this. The high expectations the world had placed on Sarajevans had cost them dearly -- and I am not speaking only of the 10,000 dead, 3,000 of them children, during the four years of what a United Nations peacekeeping spokesman was once pleased to call "a tactically advantageous position."

What did surprise me was that on the night after this past Christmas, when I drove into Sarajevo for the first time in winter since the end of the siege, the city seemed almost as isolated as it had been during the war. It had snowed hard the week before -- one of those Balkan storms in which the sky simply opens and dumps three feet of snow on the ground. But it had not been snowing as I had set out from Zagreb earlier in the day, and it was not snowing in the mountains outside Sarajevo. Still, the roads were virtually impassable. No one was firing at us, but in no other manner of difficulty did the trip seem all that different from trips in the days of the siege, when the only route into Sarajevo involved the old foresters' track over Mount Igman.

Stampi, a friend from Sarajevo who had come to pick me up in Croatia, just shrugged his shoulders when I expressed surprise that there were no snowplows or even traffic policemen along the route. "The government does nothing," he said matter-of-factly. "It was different before."

"When?" I asked.

Stampi looked at me for a moment, his usually impassive face for once expressing almost exaggerated bewilderment. The question was too obvious to merit a response. But he gave one: "In Tito's time, of course."

During the siege Stampi had worked variously as a driver for journalists and on the front line with a commando unit that he and his comrades dubbed "the Black Mambas." Like many ex-fighters, he now owns a small café. His is called the Lady Bug, and it is located just behind the Holiday Inn where most of the journalists stayed during the siege. With his wife, Jadranka, he is now trying to start a flower shop. Business was okay, he said, though Jadranka would later confide to me that they were barely making a profit, and managing that only by working twelve or fourteen hours a day.

Stampi and Jadranka are in better shape than most couples in Bosnia these days. They are extremely enterprising people, and have little of the mixed resignation and sense of entitlement that may be communism's most subversive legacy, not just to Bosnia but to the former Yugoslavia as a whole. Stampi and Jadranka simply got on with things. If he had to drive to Hungary to get parts for his car, he did so, and was hard at work the morning after his return. If she had to smile as the same small circle of customers regaled her with the same stories each day, that was what she did. And yet even if they said so only when pressed, it was clear that they both felt stymied, and that postwar Sarajevo felt to them more like an emerging backwater than a place of opportunity, which the end to the shelling and sniping had permitted them to hope it might become. "Everyone I know talks of cars and clothes," Jadranka told me. "For them, it's as if the future doesn't exist."

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