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Where to Now, Sarajevo?

It's hard to imagine a city greener than sarajevo. A series of hills rises above the narrow river valley, pressing close to the town center–it is not unusual to look up from a main street and see a man scything the grass in his perpendicular front yard. These verdant hillsides inspired one writer to call Sarajevo "a bird in a green nest." They also gave Serb gunners and tanks a perfect position from which to shell and snipe at the city's inhabitants.

From 1992 to the end of 1995, Sarajevo showed the world how residents of a modern city–one that had hosted the Winter Olympics only a decade earlier, with all the requisite amenities and technology–could live through a medieval siege. Five years later, still crippled by the war and by decades of socialism, Sarajevans are struggling to get back to the future. Creating a democratic, capitalist society from the ground up is a slow and painful process–and unfortunately, time is running out. Most of the agencies and advisers installed in Bosnia by the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords will be gone or downsized within the next five years. In the absence of international oversight, will the city withstand the destructive forces that some say are inherent in its population?

All eyes are on next month's general elections, the last to be financed and managed by the West. Control will then be handed over to national authorities, marking Bosnia's first experiment with self-rule since the 15th century. The hope is that the establishment of election and property laws, and the gradual return of the displaced population, will eventually lead to Bosnia's reunification. (The war left the country divided into two autonomous regions: the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation.) "These elections are crucial," says Morris Power, head of the Return and Reconstruction Task Force at the Office of the High Representative. "The outcome will determine what's going to happen in the next twenty years."

"Sarajevo, always sarajevo," grumbles a taxi driver in response to a visitor's queries. "Things happen also in Travnik, you know." But the center of action in Bosnia has always been Sarajevo. Despite a barely-there economy, patchy infrastructure, and byzantine political system, Sarajevans already have the building blocks for peaceful coexistence, since the city has retained much of its minority population of Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats (Muslims have always been the majority). Locals never fail to point out to visitors that the city's main mosque, Catholic cathedral, and Orthodox church are within a stone's throw of one another. But during the war, no stones were thrown by Sarajevans, and the city retained its cosmopolitan image of dignity and tolerance. "The example of Sarajevo is the best thing for Bosnia," says Power, "just as Bosnia is key for stability in the Balkans."

The real key for stability, of course, is economic development. At least one-third of Sarajevo's population is unemployed; the poverty level hovers at 26 percent. These numbers might be lower if companies like Mercedes had reopened their factories after the war, or if other firms were encouraged to come in. But Titoesque politicians here are more interested in lining their own pockets than in coaxing foreign investment. Officials routinely ignore economic initiatives drafted by the international organizations, for fear the new legislation might endanger their power base and privileges. A handful of companies–Siemens, Benetton–have made inroads in Bosnia, but most are deterred by taxes that seize as much as 80 percent of profits in the first year of operation. On the upside, that means no McDonald's; on the downside, it means no jobs.

In addition to everything that Western organizations are doing politically, their mere presence here is an enormous boon: Sarajevo now runs mainly on the economic engine of the international community. The city houses some 7,000 "internationals" working for the UN and other agencies, and aside from the local mafia, the foreigners are the only people making money. By employing Bosnians and spending their own earnings here, "they create one hundred percent of the economy," says Morris Power, only half joking. A decent wage in today's Sarajevo is about $210 a month–less than $2,600 a year.

Despite the harsh times, Sarajevans have a flair for enjoying life, an instinctive aestheticism that gives the city its elegance and grace. Rebecca West noted this in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, her book on 1930's Yugoslavia: "The air of luxury in Sarajevo has less to do with material goods than with the people. . . . They will let no drop of pleasure run to waste."


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