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

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.

"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."

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