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

By David Rieff

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."

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.

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."

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.

I have been back to Sarajevo at least once a year since the war ended, and I expect I will continue to return -- if only because of what I lived through during the siege. Sarajevans I know are rather startled by this, so deep is their sense of defeat. There is, after all, not a single negative thing an outsider can say about Sarajevo that Sarajevans themselves will not say first, and usually more forcefully. The fact that there is a Sarajevo at all seems miraculous to me. Still, I cannot deny, any more than my Sarajevan friends can, that the city we knew during the war's worst moments is gone, probably for good. "In 1992 and 1993 we had a chance to become the city we thought we could be," Zdravko Grebo told me. "It did not happen. This has become a little town again, a little town in the middle of nowhere, off in a corner of Europe."

A little town that was briefly the most famous place in the world, I said.

"That town existed," he replied. "But now it's gone."


This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2000/04/midnight-in-sarajevo/378123/