Serb refugees flee to Sarajevo
by Carole Williams
Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. `The centre of Belgrade is burning!' a newspaper
hawker shouted from the steps of Sarajevo's central market Sunday as Catholics
attended Easter services, Muslims strolled in the sunshine and Serbs who fled
Yugoslavia before the NATO bombardment began caught their breath in a city no
longer synonymous with war. Only four years ago, Sarajevo was branded the most
dangerous place on Earth. But this city that was targeted by one of Yugoslav
President Slobodan Milosevic's previous ethnic campaigns is now a haven for
those who want no part in the conflict over the `ethnic cleansing' of the Ser
bian province of Kosovo.
Serbia is the dominant of the two remaining republics of Yugoslavia. Belgrade,
the Yugoslav and Serbian capital, has slowly been bled of its once-vibrant
intellectual community in a decade of murderous power plays by Milosevic.
Remaining moderates left in the first days of the NATO assault or have gone into
hiding. But the Serbian influx into Sarajevo is small because Yugoslav authori
ties have virtually closed the borders to fighting-age men and even women who
can contribute to the war effort. Evidence of an exodus is mostly anecdotal. The
Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has had few requests for as
sistance in Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital - the only yardstick by which the ar
rivals can be measured.
But the arrival of even a small contingent of Yugoslav Serbs who feel safe here
is heartening for Sarajevans nostalgic for their prewar days as a model of
multicultural living and tolerance. `I feel perfectly safe here, as strange as
that may sound,' said one young Belgrade refugee who, like most taking shelter
here, asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation against relatives
still in Yugoslavia. `When I found myself headed for Sarajevo, thinking about
how I would have a shower first, then make some phone calls and then get a good
night's sleep, I realized what a crazy time we live in,' she said.
During the 31/2 years that Serbian nationalists besieged Sarajevo with mortars,
artillery and sniper fire, water and electricity were rare commodities, and food
convoys often were thwarted by Serbian forces. Cold, hunger, death and despair
over the outside world's seeming indifference were the hallmarks of daily life.
Today, while still scarred with shattered buildings, the city is alive. The war
ren of ancient stone shops in the Bascarsija Muslim quarter has been refurbished
and reopened to sell the copperware and jewelry that have been Bosnian trade
goods since the Middle Ages. Modern buildings such as the Zetra sports complex
built for the 1984 Winter Olympics and the twin Unis Towers - the blazing image
of the siege of Sarajevo - are undergoing restoration and are again in use. Le
gions of nongovernmental agencies throng the city to help repair Bosnia's war
damage, the workers patronizing new gas stations, restaurants and boutiques
selling designer clothing.
The atmosphere of recovery remains a well-kept secret among most Yugoslavs, as
the state-controlled media in Belgrade continue to deride Bosnia-Herzegovina as
a Muslim fundamentalist stronghold. But many of those with personal ties here
have been convinced otherwise. `There are not huge numbers coming because most
who opposed Milosevic left earlier, and the borders are virtually closed now,'
said Rajko Ãivkovic, director of a small news agency here and a member of the
Serbian Civic Council that advocates Bosnian re-integration. He said Serbs who
left Sarajevo for Belgrade during the war want to come back now.
Although Sarajevo leaders insisted during wartime that Yugoslavs of all ethnic
backgrounds should feel at home here, many of the Serbs who made up a third of
the capital's population moved out. Today, less than 10% of Sarajevo's popula
tion is Serbian. One Sarajevo Serb who fought against his ethnic brethren in the
1992-1995 conflict observed that those who took refuge in Belgrade often have no
homes to come back to. Empty dwellings were usually occupied by Bosnian refu
gees. Tensions still run high between those who abandoned the cause of a multi
cultural Sarajevo and those who stayed to fight for it.
But moderate Yugoslav Serbs who, despite the war, nurtured ties with friends and
relatives in Bosnia have been showing up on their doorsteps. One Belgrade
scholar who arrived here by bus last week brought only her thesis notes and a
few changes of clothing. With her brother unable to leave Belgrade because of
the Yugoslav army's mobilization and her mother refusing to leave without him,
the young graduate student exudes the hope of most exiles that her stay here
will be fleeting. If not, she says, Sarajevo is comfortingly familiar. `Some of
my friends went to Hungary, but they tell me they feel how foreign they are
there,' said the scholar, whose opposition to Milosevic made her feel endan
gered. `Coming to Sarajevo feels less like leaving [Belgrade], because we have
the same language and experience of having been in the same country. Psychologi
cally, there is not so big a rift.'
But Bosnia remains deeply divided even 31/2 years after the fighting ended with
the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace accord. Most of the Serbs live in the Serbian
republic within Bosnia, from which most members of other ethnic groups were ex
pelled. Tensions there have risen sharply, as most sympathize with Milosevic.
Article published in The Los Angeles Times, 5 April 1999