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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

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on foreign correspondence in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

Also in the April, 2000 Atlantic Monthly:

"A New Kind of Justice," by Charles Trueheart
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is the world's first war-crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. The major powers have accepted the tribunal's jurisdiction and submitted to its authority, which is far broader than most people understand. Although not even idealists would have predicted it a decade ago, something like this tribunal may soon become a permanent feature in the world.

"The Reluctant Gendarme," by Chuck Sudetic
Why is France protecting indicted war criminals in the sector of Bosnia it controls?

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Conflict in the Balkans" (March 26, 1999)
"The Balkans," Robert D. Kaplan wrote in the July, 1989, Atlantic, "could shape the end of the century, just as they did the beginning." Ten years later, NATO is waging war against Yugoslavia. Atlantic articles from 1913 to 1995 help put the conflict in perspective.

Flashback: "Balkan Epic" (March, 1999)
In 1937 the novelist Rebecca West traveled to the Balkans in search of a better understanding of that region's historical conflicts. Her classic account of that journey, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly in 1941.

Web Citation: "Roads to Refuge" (October 9, 1996)
An innovative online documentary looks at the plight of Bosnia's uprooted population.

Related link:

State Hospital of Sarajevo (War 1992-1995)
Photographs of damage sustained by the state hospital during the war. Posted at the hospital's Web site.

Photographs of Sarajevo
Photographs of the city before and after damage from the war. Posted by The Sarajevo Postwar Guide.

About Sarajevo
A brief history of the city. Posted by an organization, Sarajevo Canton, that hosted a 1998 conference devoted to developing strategies for post-war reconstruction.

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."


(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

David Rieff is the author of Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995) and the co-editor, with Roy Gutman, of Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know (1999).

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 2000; Midnight in Sarajevo - 00.04; Volume 285, No. 4; page 199-104.