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Sarajevo on the Rise

Blasius Erlinger The bridge at Mostar

Photo: The bridge at Mostar

When the fog that clings to the hills around Sarajevo finally lifts one warm spring day, scarcely a table is to be had at the long line of cafés that stretches out from the Catholic cathedral in Centar, the Austro-Hungarian quarter. The chairs are set eight or ten across, taking over the street as one establishment runs into the next. Friends arrive in twos or threes, but since Sarajevo is a small town without anonymity, they gradually gather new arrivals, and soon the division between one table and another is lost as well. The young men linger; the women parade by as if on their way somewhere, then circle back in case they weren’t noticed. In late afternoon, the passeggiata begins, and the entire town, or so it seems, joins the procession down the pedestrians-only Ferhadija Street, licking ice cream cones from Vatra or Egipat and greeting neighbors.

The view from one of those tables near the cathedral looks a lot like Trieste or Lisbon, except for the black soot still visible above the windows of bombed-out buildings throughout the city. In 1992, as Communist Yugoslavia disintegrated into war, the Serbs set up positions in the hills surrounding Sarajevo and laid siege to the city for almost four years, inextricably linking it in my mind to bodies crumpled by sniper fire and marketplaces obliterated by artillery shells. Since the peace (still militarily enforced, by the European Union)—and thanks to foreign aid—Sarajevo has been repairing the damage at a rapid pace; but for one unaccustomed to visiting a city so recently torn by war, the more striking thing is how much evidence remains. Almost every wall exposed to the hills is pockmarked with sniper fire, and fan-shaped impact craters scar sidewalks all over town. In time, I imagine, the eyes adjust so that the damage becomes mere background and the scaffolding can be mistaken for routine maintenance.

For four centuries this Ottoman city lay at the frontier of the Islamic empire in Europe, its very name—from the Turkish word saraj, suggesting a governor’s palace or court—reflecting its privileged position on old trade routes connecting East and West. Sarajevo became a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century and was under Communist rule for much of the 20th century. The historic heart of Sarajevo lies a few blocks east of the cathedral at the Sebilj, a carved-wood Turkish-style fountain at the top of a sloping triangular plaza leading into Bascar sija, the Ottoman bazaar. I wandered Bascarsija almost every day I was in Sarajevo: the swoop-necked coffee pots, hammered copper trays, and embroidered slippers in the shop windows reminded me of Cairo; the broad-domed white mosques, of Istanbul. I could hear Fez in the call to prayer echoing from the surrounding hills and smell Amman in the deliciously sweet spiced walnuts roasting at a small shop called Badem Butik. But little things suggest this is still Europe: the alleys do not meander but unfold as wide, straight lanes that intersect at right angles, and the shops withdraw under Spanish tiled roofs with overhanging eaves that offer shelter from the rain. The many centuries-old mosques are no more active than a rural French cathedral without tourists—and a good deal less busy than the mosques that have sprung up over the past few decades in Paris, Hamburg, and London. Plus, in Sarajevo no one seems to mind (or even notice) the old men drinking beer at the cafés abutting the mosque walls, or the young couples kissing wildly at the table next to them.

“I am Muslim,” Mustafa tells me, his brilliant blue eyes set off by silver hair, as we stand near the small stone Latin Bridge crossing the Miljacka River, where the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot in 1914, triggering the start of World War I. “But even now, those of us who were born and bred in Sarajevo don’t want to live in an Islamic city. This used to be called the European Jerusalem, and it was a better city then. My friends were Orthodox, Jewish, Catholic. This is what gives richness to life. Now…” His voice trails off as he looks out at a city changed by the population shifts of the war. Because so many Serb residents left when the last cease-fire took effect—and so many Bosniaks, as the Muslims are more commonly called, moved in from villages that were attacked—Sarajevo is probably more Muslim than it has ever been in its history. But to describe the changes this way is to accept the language of the war, which made the differences between the groups sound bigger than they are. Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks are all Slavs: they speak essentially the same language and, up to the war, lived peacefully in the same towns or villages—in Sarajevo, often in the same buildings, occasionally even married into the same families. The primary differences are religious (Bosnian Serbs, generally, are Orthodox Christians, and Croats are Catholic), and any grievances that welled up from divergent myths and memories were held in check by the government under President Tito’s long rule. In the power vacuum created by the collapse of Communism in the early 1990’s, extremist politicians in Bosnia—egged on by their co-religionists in the neighboring republics of Serbia and Croatia—used virulent propaganda, massacres, and fear of reprisals to turn these slight differences into something palpable. This tactic produced the brutal war that I’d watched on television, the war that gave us the phrase ethnic cleansing. But in some ways ethnic hatred was also a cover, a kind of high canopy under which other forces were at work, unnoticed by the outside world: class prejudice, rural villagers’ resentment of the cosmopolitans in the cities, and competition for a place at the trough as the state-run economy was being shifted to private hands.

Still, Mustafa’s refusal to accept the logic of the extremists—who insisted that he had more kinship with a Bosniak from a village than with the Serb or Croat neighbor he’d grown up with—struck me as quietly heroic. It was a sentiment I would hear time and time again in Sarajevo, and at first I disbelieved it: How could there not be anger toward the Serbs after all that had happened?But almost every Sarajevan I met had a story about Serbs who remained in the city through the war or risked their lives to help them, and I realized that they remembered what I had forgotten: only the extremists believed all Serbs should be on one side. As Nadim, a young Bosniak who lived in the frontline neighborhood of Grbavica during the war, put it, “The Serbs who attacked us were, for the most part, not from Sarajevo. They were from the villages, and they had a different mentality. My friends who were Serbs, they stayed here with us during the war. They were Sarajevan first, you could say, and then they were Serb.”

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