bosnia report
New Series No. 6/7 September - December 1998
Welcome to Sarajevo
by Carole Cadwallader

Snipers' Alley - where was it? As much as I wanted to go and see it, I didn't feel it was the kind of question I could casually ask a passer-by. By chance I stumbled across a new local guidebook to the city. It was called Welcome to Sarajevo - a phrase I had only heard used ironically before.

Sarajevo survival map

Under the subtitle 'A Millennium of Persistence', Welcome to Sarajevo had a whole section devoted to the siege. The Holiday Inn from where Kate Adie and Martin Bell had reported the war under gunfire was there, as was the tunnel to the airport, which for four years had been the only route into the city for food and medicine.

The authors recommended it as a 'symbol of the perseverance and indestructibility of Sarajevo'. It was exactly the type of thing I had come to see. I read on: '. . . and a disgraceful monument to the inconceivable hypocrisy of the so- called international community.'

I went anyway and drove through the western suburbs of Sarajevo, where the front line had been just three years ago. The nature of the destruction verged on the baroque. There were curlicues of hanging concrete, delicately dangling pieces of plaster, and window panes shattered into ornate designs by bullet holes.

There were blocks of flats where the outer walls stood but the floors had crumpled; apartment buildings with the fronts missing and pieces of wallpaper flapping in the wind where the walls should have been; office blocks with gaping mortar wounds.

Ancient ruins make you wonder about the civilization capable of producing them. These left me open-mouthed at what kind of civilization it was that destroyed them. I had always thought of concrete as something solid, something concrete. In Sarajevo, its true flimsiness was exposed - it looked like papier-mache that had encountered an uncommonly strong draught.

Driving past the scenes of mass devastation, I slowed down and stared. And took photographs surreptitiously. Furtively, I bought postcards that mocked the sort of pretty views other cities boast of, showing off various examples of Sarajevo's more spectacular scenes of destruction.

In a gift shop in the Turkish quarter, I came over all embarrassed when the shopkeeper caught me lingering over the spent cartridges that had been polished up and were being sold as souvenirs. I had been dimly aware that I was drawn to Sarajevo by the same impulse that makes you slow down when you see a car crash and stare. But I hadn't wanted to admit it.

It wasn't until I went to - of all places - the tourist information office that I was caught in the act. The bureau was staffed by two women whoÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ were deep in discussion when I arrived. They turned to me as an outside adjudicator.

'We are rewriting the legend to the map of Sarajevo,' the older of the women told me, 'to include the spots of some massacres. Is this right: ''Spots of massacres''?'

'Sites of massacres?' I suggested.

'Yes, but the problem is that there were many, many massacres and this is only three.'

I tried again: 'What about ''Sites of the three biggest massacres''?'

'No, we had bigger ones. They were not the biggest, but they were right here. Three of them right here just around the corner in the central market,' she said, as if she was reading off a shopping list. 'There was 27 May 1992, 5 February 1994 and 20 August 1995, when it was 64 people killed. Would you like a cup of tea?'

It will be fun, I had glibly told my friends when I told them I was going to Sarajevo, and had gone out and bought a new pair of sunglasses. But I had, of course, been expecting to see ruins. I hadn't envisaged the chic long-legged women dressed a la Spice Girls who were parading the streets on the evening I arrived. Or the families sitting over ice creams, and young men in leather jackets gossiping in the pavement cafes. Apart from a few bullet holes here and there, the city centre was remarkably unscathed. The elegant apartment buildings, a legacy of the city's Habsburg rule, and the dozens of bookshops and bohemian cafes made it seem like any other Central European city - albeit without the dourness. People were hanging around the street corners as if they were in Rome, and the minarets and jangly Turkish love songs played at distortion level made it seem at times like a hallucinatory version of Istanbul.

But it was the soldiers who gave it the real whiff of the Balkans. They were everywhere, although they were more like well-armed hairdressers than trained killers. Everybody is deeply fashionable in Sarajevo, but none more so than the Nato troops. Italian soldiers wearing dark glasses minced as they walked and wolf-whistled the local beauties; German soldiers with Alpine hats spent whole afternoons taking photos of each other in front of the local monuments; and even the American soldiers, who insisted on standing up when you entered a cafe and calling you ma'am, looked stylish in tight-fitting T-shirts.

It was only slowly that I began noticing the incidental details: the rubbish bins donated by the European Union, the buses by Japan, the cultural centres by Iran, and the disconcerting graffiti painted on every street corner: 'Why?', 'Paradise lost', 'Who cares?'

In one of the pavement cafes, I sat and drank one strong, dark Turkish coffee after another and read Rezak Hukanovic's harrowing account of being held in a Bosnian Serb concentration camp, The Tenth Circle of Hell. It wasn't just the caffeine that left me feeling jittery.

It was probably more need for a benediction than for journalistic inquiry that led me to make an appointment to meet the director of tourism. Mr Pobric, I discovered, had once commanded a staff of 40 and throughout the siege came into the office every day as normal. I tried, but I couldn't think of any job more futile.

'I had seen these things on the television but I had never believed it could happen here. And the world, they just waited for us to die. And it is happening again.' His voice started to rise. 'It is happening again in Kosovo. I cannot believe it. I cannot bear to watch it.'

I thought about my own confused half-hearted attempt to follow the ins and outs of the war in Bosnia. Then he added: 'And now we have tourists and they ask the way to Snipers' Alley.'

'Oh yes, I was going to ask you that,' I said. 'Ha! There is not one Snipers' Alley. There are dozens. Every single road that ran from north to south was a snipers' alley. We were completely surrounded. The Chetniks were in the mountains and they looked down their sights and . . . Bam!'

Back out on the streets, a storm was closing in. The airÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ was heavy. I looked up to the mountains, the green mossy hills that rise on every side of Sarajevo and were once considered beautiful. In the humidity, they felt as if they were pressing up against the city, refusing to let the heat dissipate. The sky turned black and I retreated to the flat where I was staying. Thunder rumbled in the background. Latifa, my hostess, looked out of the window and sniffed. 'It is just weather.'

And it was just weather. Orhan, a student in his mid-twenties I met in a cafe, made me realise that more succinctly than anything I could have read. Unlike many of his friends who had escaped to the States, to Western Europe, or to Turkey, to wherever they could go, Orhan had stayed in Sarajevo for the duration of the war. What was it like? I asked him. I couldn't help myself. 'You are like my friends,' he said. 'They talk like they know about guns and bullets. But they don't know. They don't know the sound of it. The ''psshewss'' and the ''keracks'' every night. And I am glad they don't know. I wouldn't wish it on anyone.'

It was only after we had been talking for two hours that I found out that Orhan was still at school. Since he had learned most of his English from MTV, I assumed he meant school in the American sense, that is, college. 'No. School. I am 17 years old.' I was dumbfounded. He was 17 going on 44. I remembered myself at the same age and winced. He was 11 when the war began, 15 when it ended. The normal horrors of adolescence suddenly paled in comparison.

The citizens of Sarajevo are simply more interesting than other people. I found myself talking to them with the obsessiveness of a collector: they were witnesses to history. Welcome to Sarajevo, with its strange and wonderful translations, backed me up on this point. 'Even if you have not made friends in Sarajevo - which may happen to you only in the case that you are a weird character or lone wolf - there are innumerable possibilities . . . to spend exceptionally pleasant moments.'

I met Milan, a journalist for a car magazine, who had a Serb mother and a Croat father. He was filled with nostalgia for Yugoslavia and a certain amount of hopelessness about his job. 'I write about Aston Martins and Porsche GTIs, and there is no one I know who has a car made after 1979.'

I met Milan's friend Vladimir, who had a Croat mother and a Serb father, and who smoked Drina cigarettes, named after the river that divides Bosnia from Serbia. 'I could smoke a different brand now, but these were once the most expensive packs in the world,' he said, after inhaling luxuriantly. 'During the siege one packet cost $20.'

By the time I came to leave Sarajevo, I knew what I was doing there. For as much as I had tried my best to keep track of the war in Bosnia at the time, I always kept losing the plot. 'People must come,' Mr Pobric had told me. 'They must understand.' It was, of course, his job to say that. But it wasn't that which made him raise his voice and slam his fist on the table as he said it.

'We love seeing tourists here,' Orhan told me, 'because it makes us feel like we live in a norü mal city. You cannot imagine how good that is.'

I went back to the souvenir shop and unashamedly bought a cartridge with Sarajevo engraved on the side. I sent my mum and dad a postcard of the ruins.

And I agree with Mr Pobric. People must come. They must understand.

This article appeared in the Travel Supplement of The Daily Telegraph on 17 October 1998


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