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

I soon discovered that this diagnosis was shared by most of my old friends in the city. "Nothing is moving here," Haris Pasovic, a theater director, said. "The war is over, but nothing is really happening." "I am so angry," he said. "I want my streets cleaned -- like in New York or Uppsala. That's not too much to ask of a government."

Pasovic was a well-known director in Novi Sad, in Serbia, before the war. After the siege began, he moved to Sarajevo, in the summer of 1992. He entered the city in what in those days was the common fashion -- making his way in the middle of the night to the edge of the last bit of Bosnian-controlled land, and then sprinting across the no-man's-land of the airport tarmac to be arrested by the UN troops guarding the airport and escorted into the city. Pasovic was one of the handful of people who tried to keep Sarajevo's cultural life going during the siege, producing and directing plays, working on films chronicling the siege, and organizing festivals. Now, he told me, he is no longer interested in creating theater. "I want to know why this happened," he said. "That's what obsesses me." And he paraphrased the German Marxist Theodor Adorno: "After Auschwitz it is impossible to write poetry."

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.

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