Sarajevo: A Spring of Hope

By Whiston, Amna | Contemporary Review, July 2002 | Go to article overview

Sarajevo: A Spring of Hope


Whiston, Amna, Contemporary Review


SOME towns, like some people, have great personality. You can like them or dislike them: they can make you laugh, think and cry; and you can never dare feel indifferent or sorry for them. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is such a place.

Only two decades ago it was priding itself on the newly built Olympic resorts in the mountains by which it is surrounded, waiting in feverish excitement to offer its famous hospitality as host to the 1984 Olympic Games. Only a decade ago it was a living hell, a city under siege, shelled continuously by the Serbs hiding in the mountains, while the world watched on TV the horrific episodes of Europe's worst conflict since the Second World War.

And today it is as intriguing a European city as ever. A city which has, in spite of the horrific consequences of the war, maintained its multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan character. A town in which U2 pop star, Bono Vox, posed for the national daily Oslobodjenje two years ago, holding proudly his new Bosnian passport and claiming that his future tours will always start in Sarajevo. Wide roads, colourful trains, pink, beige and blue painted Austro-Hungarian buildings, the cobbled old Turkish town, the bright yellow Holiday Inn, a huge screen on top of a department store advertising a Loreal product. A mosque, an Orthodox church, a Catholic cathedral, a synagogue, all sitting in the same square. All this mixed with ruined buildings and shrapnel-poked walls, reminding of the war. But these imprints of war somehow also show how the presence of the grotesque can only but pronounce the beauty it stands next to.

Like a poet putting his new flamboyant hat on, this Spring in Sarajevo one saw chairs put outside the cafes and restaurants, all packed with people drinking their espresso now often paid for in euros, and evening strolls of people dressed up almost as if going to the Oscars. They may not be going to the Oscars but they have won one this year, for the first time in the history of Bosnia and Herzegovina--it was Danis Tanovic's film No Man's Land. 'America likes us now more', is what Bosnians say. And that brings memories to another film, The Time of Gypsies, by a Bosnian-born film maker, Emir Kusturica, which was also nominated back in the 1980s but didn't win one. Bosnians used to say, 'that is because we are a communist country'. And that was said with bitter pride.

Times have changed. With the collapse of communism, and a harsh introduction to democracy, that pride has vanished. People in this turbulent country are now re-examining their history, particulary the famous historical moment, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by a Serb student, Gavrilo Princip, on 28th June 1914, which led to Austro-Hungary declaring war against Serbia. This event, which ignited the beginning of the First World War, was once described to Bosnian children as a heroic act. Today, the school books say that the Serbian terrorist shot dead the Austro-Hungarian Archduke who was besotted by this country. Franz Ferdinand loved Bosnia and wanted to make it great. His dreams were shattered by Serbian nationalism. Once again, in the most recent war, Serbian nationalism had threatened to shatter the Bosnian dream. That ideology proclaimed that people of different ethnic and religious traditions can not live together.

Not even all the Serbs believed it. In Sarajevo in particular, a good number of Serbs stayed in the besieged town, sharing their destiny with Muslims, Croats and other citizens. Some Serbs even joined what is often referred to as the Bosnian Muslim Army and fought against the Serbian leader Radovan Karadjic's militants. This was hardly mentioned in all war and post-war reporting. Perhaps it would have been too much to grasp for the confused world who didn't know a great deal about this country and its history. It is however important to move beyond this dichotomy of insisting on referring to Bosnians as Muslims, Serbs and Croats. …

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