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

"Of course we would have done such things in Tito's time," Hrvoje Batinic, an official of the Open Society Fund in Bosnia, declared flatly. "But in those days there was a punishment if you did not do such civic-minded things, whereas today there are no such consequences." Batinic, who is a gloomy person at the best of times, mused over the changes in Sarajevo since the siege ended. "This is not a city anymore -- it's a village," he said. "And it's not even a proper village."

He continued, "I would not say for a moment that I miss the siege. That would be inhuman. I do not miss children's being murdered and people's being blown to bits on water lines. But I confess that I do miss the way I was, the kind of person I was, during the siege. I was better; many of us were. You may say that this is a ridiculous feeling, but I believe that it is an accurate one. So many of us were better during the siege."

To be nostalgic for a great ordeal is probably hard-wired into most of us. What made this sentiment different, and more troubling, was that it seemed to have paralyzed ordinary Sarajevans, rendering them almost incapable of living productively in the present, let alone preparing themselves for the future. And yet that future is likely to prove as challenging as anything they have faced since the siege ended.

For Sarajevo, as for Bosnia generally, 2000 is not just the overcommercialized commencement of a new millennium (for the Muslims of Sarajevo, after all, the year is 1421; for the dwindling population of observant Jews it is 5760). It is the year when the country will either begin to right itself or begin to be abandoned by what is called the international community -- because the foreigners are getting more and more fed up. To them, the Bosnians seem content to remain permanent wards of Europe and America. When foreign diplomats and aid workers are among themselves, they speak contemptuously of this attitude. They tell stories of corruption with the same obsessiveness with which residents of large U.S. cities used to tell stories of street crime. And even leftists who loathed Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan routinely use language that either of those two scourges of the "undeserving" poor would have found comfortingly familiar.

A European diplomat I know told me that he believes there is little hope that things will get back on track. "We're willing to station troops here indefinitely, to make sure the war doesn't break out again," he said. "But we will not take political responsibility for Bosnia. My sense is that slowly the foreigners will leave. The Soros foundation is already on the brink of closing, and others will certainly follow. Soros has all but said that he thinks the Bosnians are failures. He can be frank because he's a billionaire. But I assure you that this is what a great many people in the embassies, in the Office of the High Representative, and in other foreign offices in this city believe as well. The Bosnians had better be careful. If they aren't, they may find themselves alone again."

Many Sarajevans, and not just members of the elite like Grebo, understand the ramifications of this perfectly. A depressingly large number of the people who are doing well in the city these days are doing so only through contact with foreigners. Francis Bueb illustrated the point succinctly. "Unemployment here is sixty-five percent," he said. "I employ twelve people and pay them a decent salary. And they, in turn, are probably each supporting six or eight people. If I were to close the center, I would effectively leave almost a hundred people without support. Pensions are nonexistent; local salaries are pitiful. There are only the foreigners. The foreigners and corruption."

DURING the early summer of 1994, at the beginning of the third year of the siege, my friends in the city took to making elaborate predictions about what the Bosnian capital would be like at the turn of the millennium. Sarajevans had much better things to do than worry about where they would be in 2000. Just getting through the day unscathed was a sufficiently ambitious undertaking. But somehow there was something appealingly ironic to my Sarajevan friends about the idea that their city was on the brink of destruction only a few years before the beginning of a new century.

"I don't even know if there will be a Sarajevo in the year 2000," my young friend Una Sekerez, who worked for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, once said to me. To the Bosnian poet Ferida Durakovic, the future seemed likely to hold something more grotesque. "We are already a theme park of suffering for you foreigners," she said, "so if we lose, maybe the Serbs will turn the whole place into some kind of commemoration of Greater Serbia -- like Kosovo field, only this time commemorating a great Serb victory, not a defeat." Her friend the painter Branka Vukic nodded in agreement. "And if they don't, maybe the UN and you in the West will turn Sarajevo into some kind of living monument to the way things used to be here, before we were all killed or dispersed, complete with Unesco certification."

In those days the millennium was an idea in much the way that "multicultural" Sarajevo was an idea. For some of the young Sarajevans I came to know during the siege, it became inseparable from the idea of survival. "I would like so much to be here when the millennium turns," a young soldier told me one evening in a black-market restaurant directly across from the Orthodox cathedral in the center of town. "That would be our greatest revenge on the world that is content to feed us and let the snipers do their work. We would have survived. I would walk with my parents from one end of the city to the other, from the tower blocks of Alipasino Polje to the old town, and then up into the hills beyond, where the first line is today. I'd dance in front of the National Theater, and stand along the Miljacka by that stupid bridge where that cretinous Serb killed the archduke, and kiss my girlfriend. And when I heard the fireworks, I wouldn't run for cover, or flinch, or look around to see if anyone had been hit. I'd shout with excitement, the way I did when I was a child. If I'm alive, I'll be here."

I have no idea if that soldier survived the war, let alone whether, like me, he was at the celebration in front of the National Theater on the night of December 31, 1999. What I do know is that in many ways the evening was just as he had imagined it. The fireworks did go off, to the delight of the young and the visible dismay of the few middle-aged and elderly people in the crowd. The rock music blared late into the night. Young couples were making out along the river, or walking through the streets of the old town, past refurbished shops and under strings of Christmas lights.

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