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

No doubt Pasovic has personal reasons for going into a kind of internal exile. At the same time, though, his choice closely mirrors that of too many members of the Sarajevan elite for it to be without broader significance. Ademir Kenovic, the best filmmaker to remain in Sarajevo during the siege, lives in Mexico now. The arts and humanities departments at the University of Sarajevo have suffered crippling defections -- not only many of the best professors but also the best students have left the country. The journalists who risked their lives daily to produce the newspaper Oslobodjenje in a ruined building less than a hundred yards from the Serb front line have mostly emigrated. The paper's editor, Kemal Kurspahic, lives in Washington; his deputy, Gordana Knezevic, works for Reuters in Toronto; and the foreign editor, Zlatko Dizdarevic, moves between Sarajevo and Italy.

Among the children of this cultural elite the situation is, if anything, even more extreme. At a New Year's Eve party at the French-government-supported André Malraux Cultural Center, Dizdarevic told me that his son had been visiting Sarajevo from the college in the American Midwest that he has attended for two years. "I knew he didn't want to come back here except for a holiday," he said. "But what I hadn't realized was that all his friends feel the same way. All they're thinking about, as far as I can see, is leaving for good."

Zdravko Grebo, a law professor and a political activist who during the siege exemplified for foreigners and Sarajevans alike the genuinely liberal values that Sarajevo at its best really did embody, was still more emphatic. During the first two years of the war he ran George Soros's Open Society Fund here and started the first truly independent radio station, Radio Zid. Now he interests himself all but exclusively in his work at the university. But he told me, "The best ones all want to get out of here."

"And what do you tell them?" I asked.

"What do you want me to tell them?" he demanded. "I tell them that if they must go, then they should go." He continued, "The funny thing is that they don't just seem to want to leave Bosnia -- they seem to want to get as far away from here as they possibly can. One of them told me recently that he wanted to go to New Zealand. When I asked him why, he said, 'Professor, it's simple. If I go to Vienna or Frankfurt, I'm bound to get drunk, start feeling nostalgic, and buy a ticket back here. But if I move to New Zealand, then coming back will be too damn expensive, and I'll just wake up the next day with a hangover, rather than spoiling everything!'"

For foreigners committed to Bosnia, including Francis Bueb, the director of the Malraux Center, these realities are painful and disconcerting. Bueb told me that he suspects that many of the promising young people who visit the center are really hoping to find a way to start a new life in France. "All most people here think of is money and emigration," he said. "There was a brilliant young student who had the chance for a scholarship in Paris and wanted me to recommend her. For a long time I kept saying no, telling her that much as I esteemed her, I knew she would never come back to Bosnia once she left. But she insisted and insisted, and finally I gave in. Well, you can imagine the rest. She's left for good!"

Grebo and Bueb find themselves in impossible positions. Their own views of the future of Sarajevo, though generally kept to themselves, are even gloomier than those of the young people they mentor. "A bottle with twenty glasses -- that's the economy here," Grebo told me. Despite $5 billion in aid, the Bosnian authorities have proved largely incapable of restarting the economy. Unemployment is more than 50 percent, and although there is a vibrant café life, a growing bureaucracy, and an ever-increasing black market, there is no economy in any serious sense of the term, nor any realistic prospect that one will develop anytime soon. Meanwhile, the money from the so-called stabilization fund is scheduled to run out at the end of this year, and it is by no means clear that either Washington or the European Union will continue to pour funds into Bosnia.

Like many Sarajevans, Grebo was harsh in his indictment of the Bosnian authorities -- Muslim, Croat, and Serb alike. "Nothing has changed here politically," he told me emphatically. "The same people who were in power when the war started are still in power, and you saw where their genius got Bosnia. You don't have a state here. Or, rather, you have three ethnic groups in a Dayton state, but no society. Sarajevo looks all right, but inside it is destroyed. And people vote for the parties they think will protect them from the other national groups."


THERE are those in Sarajevo who believe that the problem has been the West's unwillingness to really take charge. Once the fighting stopped, the major powers were content to pursue a thoughtless, hollow democratization. "We weren't ready for local elections in 1996," Zlatko Dizdarevic told me, "but the Europeans and the Americans were determined that they take place, even though they knew that only the national parties had any chance of winning. So the result is that we have formal democracy but in reality a system in which ordinary people complain about their respective leaders but wind up voting for them anyway, if only because they are more afraid of the other national groups than they are disgusted with the leaders they have."

Dizdarevic believes that Bosnia's leaders are incapable of thinking about the needs of ordinary people -- not just because they are venal but also because they have been conditioned to think only about problems that pit nationality against nationality. A problem like snow removal simply does not register with them. Something of this same attitude was present during the siege. I remember returning to Sarajevo after a fairly prolonged absence and realizing that the streets, which UN peacekeepers had begun to clean up in the summer of 1994, were now filthy again. It turned out that the explanation for this was a change in UN force commanders in Sarajevo. Sir Michael Rose had been obsessed with clean streets; his successor, Rupert Smith, was as interested in confronting the Serbs as Rose had been in understanding them, but he did not think that Sarajevo's sanitation problems were his or his soldiers' affair.

By chance, I was able to put the question to Hasan Muratovic, the Bosnian government minister then charged with relations with the UN. Even though there was little shelling in this period, Muratovic was categorical: "Cleaning the streets is the UN's job."

This attitude so permeates Sarajevo that only on January 3, two weeks after the most recent snow had fallen, were the perfectly serviceable snowplows and street sweepers -- bought for the municipal authorities with European Union funds -- actually deployed. In the interim I did not see a single Bosnian sweeping a street or even clearing a passage to his or her own place of business. The assumption seemed to be that if the foreigners wouldn't do it and the local authorities could not be bothered with it, there was no reason for anyone else to do a thing.

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