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.