Fifteen years ago, U2 brought music and a message to post-war Sarajevo.
Fifteen years ago this weekend, on Sept. 23, 1997, pop music changed the world.
Well, briefly at least. On a Tuesday night in a bomb-scarred Olympic stadium, Irish rock band U2 played the first major pop concert to take place in the recuperating city of Sarajevo since the end of the Bosnian war, in hopes of erasing the ethnic tensions that had overwhelmed Yugoslavia, if only for the duration of a two-act set.
"If there's any message, it's a simple one, a banal one," frontman Bono explained to CNN. "It's that music is beyond politics."
Famously, Bono's ballooning humanitarian efforts would later earn him a reputation—not a good one—as a "messianic do-gooder" and an overambitious, globe-trotting collector of vanity projects. In 2002, the cover of Time would ask cheekily, "Can Bono Save the World?," and in 2009, the Daily Mail complained that while Bono was certainly passionate about relieving Third World debt, he acted "as if he has the entire solution to it in his leather trousers." But U2 hadn't come to Sarajevo with plans to save the nation or reverse the course of history. Bringing a good time to some young people for a few hours was good enough.
Sarajevo had emerged only two years earlier from the longest siege in modern military history. Serb aggressors had surrounded the city for 44 months between March of 1992 and December of 1995, starving and mistreating its citizens. For three and a half years, Sarajevans were dependent on food and fuel trafficked into the city through a kilometer-long underground tunnel, continually taking cover from the hundreds of mortar shells that fell on the city every day. According to war reporter Charlotte Eagar,
"Old ladies staggered home, hauling prams and homemade go-carts laden with plastic containers of water. ... Unable to collect firewood, people burned first their furniture and then their books. And yet they died during the brutal mountain winters. ... Both the shelling and the cold were indiscriminate in meting out death."
By the time the war ended in 1995, more than 10,000 Bosnians had been killed in Sarajevo.
Bono had visited the country shortly afterward, and promised to return and "bring the band along next time." The 1997 concert was a fulfillment of that promise.
By then, the once-magnificent city—the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics—that had become a death camp almost overnight had started rebuilding itself. Sarajevo's zoo was being restored, and arts patrons swooped in to furnish the wounded city with musical instruments and library books. Guerrilla artists had begun beautifying the streets with "Sarajevo roses"—red resin poured into the scars and divots made by mortar explosions. So at the insistence of Sarajevo organizers, this would not be a small charity concert—rather, Sarajevo would be a full-scale, ticket-selling tour stop on the band's global PopMart tour.
The 60 trucks carrying U2's massive soundstage had to navigate narrow mountain roads to even get to Sarajevo; nevertheless, a team of 450 assembled the stage and sound system in Koševo Stadium.
"It's just a miracle that we're here, really," said guitarist The Edge to a swarm of reporters that greeted the band upon their arrival. "The fact that we can come and put on not just a concert but the same concert that we put on in Paris and New York and London [is] maybe a symbol for the people of Sarajevo that things are getting back to normal."
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The night of the concert, special trains brought young people from former Yugoslav republics Croatia and Slovenia to Sarajevo. According to news reports from the week of, Slovenes were informed that "they would not require a visa for the evening."
And for two hours that night, in a stadium surrounded by NATO troops, a sold-out crowd of 45,000 people from all over the former Yugoslavia bathed themselves in neon light, bounced along to both the classics and the manufactured synth U2 considered high art at the time, and kind of felt normal again.
The U2 of 1997 wasn't quite as suited to act as a symbol of hope for a discouraged city as, say, the U2 of 2002. The PopMart tour was a biting parody play on shallow materialism; Bono and his bandmates tramped around the stage in shiny satin capes and wore flesh-toned shirts with eye-popping foam muscles bulging out of them. In other words, it was a weird moment for U2. The PopMart tour, sadly, couldn't offer Bosnians the same simple, mighty images of resilience that an older, wiser U2 would later offer heartsick Americans in the months after 9/11.
That's not to say, though, that the concert for Sarajevo was without its moments of high-gloss emotional splendor. During the Luciano Pavarotti-assisted ballad "Miss Sarajevo," Bono led 21-year-old Inela Nogić onstage by the hand. Nogić had become the tragic, lovely face of the war—and the inspiration for the song—when she won a Sarajevo beauty pageant in 1993 during the siege. As she was crowned, Nogić and a dozen other swimsuit-clad, shrapnel-scarred teenagers unfolded a banner: "Don't let them kill us," it read, in English.
"[Holding a beauty pageant] was kind of a crazy thing to do during a war," she told the Associated Press earlier this year. "But we tried to live a normal life. It was some kind of a defense mechanism we all had." According to the AP, Nogić ducked shells and snipers just to get to and from the contest with her crown.
In the years after U2's concert for Sarajevo, inter-ethnic aggressions would flare up again in the Balkan region. War erupted less than a year later in Kosovo, and though Sarajevo itself is flourishing today, the celebrated "normalcy" that 1997 wanted so desperately to usher in was fleeting at best. NATO forces would remain in Bosnia through 2004, and European Union peacekeepers are still stationed there today. Ethnic Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians still uncomfortably share territory, and many would prefer not to. As Aida Cerkez of the Associated Press puts it, "Everybody [still] wants what they wanted back in 1992. So Bosnia today is not at war, but certainly not at peace."
So today, maybe it's best to think of U2's historic concert as just a kind gesture for a long-suffering people. PopMart didn't undo the horrors of war or bring long-lasting peace to Bosnia so much as it brought a happy distraction to some people who'd been through a lot.