Whatever will become of Bosnia's vibrant capital?Five years after the end of the civil war, the people of Sarajevo are leading the country's transformation into a 21st-century society. But the future won't wait.

Marie Hennechart

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."

This love of beauty and pleasure is evident throughout the city. Full-blown roses spill over garden walls to sprinkle the sidewalks with their petals. Even the ugliest concrete high-rises have street-level cafés with jolly umbrellas and patches of green lawn. And if deutsche marks and dollars are scarce, the soil is still rich: at the markets, mounds of glistening cherries, white zucchini, and new potatoes are arranged to resemble cornucopias. Too short of money to even sit at one of the sidewalk cafés that are the center of Sarajevan social life, many residents take evening promenades on Ferhadija, the pedestrian thoroughfare, laughing, holding hands, and licking cheap cones of creamy gelato.

But the people on these streets are different from those of a decade ago. During the war, farmers and villagers from the surrounding countryside poured into Sarajevo (it is one of the war's ironies that a besieged city was the safest place they could find). Meanwhile, many of the city's professionals and intellectuals emigrated to Europe, Canada, or Australia, and few have returned. The population fell from 510,000 to 360,000, and the influx of country-dwellers has changed the tenor of the city. "Sarajevo is more provincial than ever before in its history," one longtime resident says. Others complain that they no longer recognize passers-by on the street.

Furthermore, even now, young Sarajevans are moving abroad, frustrated by the lack of opportunities. "I was left with one friend when the war ended," says Marijela Margeta, a costume and set designer at the National Theatre. "At twenty-seven, I had to make all new friends, a new career, and a new life."

Marijela and her fellow citizens seem caught in a state of suspended animation, unable to think seriously about the future until Slobodan Milosevic is gone and Serbia becomes a different kind of neighbor. Only then will their fears be put to rest that war won't break out again, particularly after the 20,000 NATO-led troops leave. "I worry there could be trouble when the international community is gone," says Dubravka Bosnjak, a 24-year-old bank manager. She has reason to be nervous: in June, Serb nationalists tried to prevent refugees from returning to their homes in the Serb Republic. The Serb police did nothing, and the West's failure to react leaves the door open to similar skirmishes in the future.

Even with the worst of the fighting over, the war continues to exact deadly consequences. There is a literal ring of fire around the city, in the form of unexploded land mines laid by the artillery-poor Bosnian army as a defense against the Serbs. This April, three children died in a field only a mile from the city center when they stepped on an anti-personnel mine. "The de-mining program here has been a disaster, a huge mess," says Harry Leefe at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Although $80 million has been spent, only 4 percent of Bosnia's 1 million mines have been removed. At this rate, according to the UNHCR, it will take a century to get rid of them all.

Much will be decided by the vote in november. In last spring's municipal elections, the Social Democrats–whose membership includes Muslims, Serbs, and Croats–made gains against the hard-line nationalist parties. "The Social Democrats are the only chance for this country," says Boro Kontic, director of the Sarajevo Media Center. "The only way forward is to see the backs of the old politicians." Morris Power agrees: "Bosnia will not survive if people don't stop thinking of themselves as Muslim or Serb or Croat first." The West's goal is to braid the three groups (who are all of the same Slavic ethnicity) together so tightly that through some magical process they will fuse to form a single strand–the Bosnians. But no one is sure the transformation will be successful. The intention of the Dayton Peace Accords is to erase the effects of ethnic cleansing, returning the population to pre-war levels. Power offers a simple formula: "Without the return of the refugees, there will be war. And without stability, there will be no economy. Period."

Most Sarajevans say they intend to vote next month, but some don't believe it will change much. "We are depressive optimists," says Kontic, laughing. "We hope things will get better but know that they won't." Part of the problem is that the people's instinct for self-determination has atrophied after six centuries of domination by the Turks, the Austrians, and finally, Tito. Though change is now within reach, Sarajevans haven't yet learned how to ask for it. "In our country, people are still scared of politicians, not the other way around," says Kontic. Accustomed to socialist propaganda and state-controlled media, Bosnians are also skeptical of the power of the press. That's why the Sarajevo Media Center, working with the BBC, is training young television journalists to hold the actions of their leaders under a microscope and ask challenging, provocative questions. Kontic hopes this will create a different relationship between the leaders and the led, one in which the latter hold the upper hand.

Meanwhile, the world is slowly returning to sarajevo. backpackers trickle into town aboard buses from Zagreb and Dubrovnik. Word is spreading about the excellent ski runs on snowy peaks within an hour of the city. Peacetime has also brought a flowering of cultural events, such as the Sarajevo Film Festival held in August, when first-run Hollywood blockbusters are screened at an open-air arena (its 2,500 seats are sold out every night), while smaller cinemas are devoted to movies by Bosnian and international directors. The Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Arts sends Bosnian artists and their work to Washington, Paris, and Ljubljana, Slovenia. The National Theatre is flourishing, plays are being performed around the city, and even international film crews are showing an interest in Sarajevo. Young promoters recently opened a drum-and-bass music club in the city center, and Serbian and Croatian punk bands often come through town.

And despite the departure of some residents for perceived greener pastures, Sarajevo exerts an enduring hold on many of its inhabitants, who have suffered and survived together. Marijela, for one, says she will not leave: "I love my family, my home, and my city–for me, that's what life is about." The actions of those who stay, like Marijela, will forge the future of Sarajevo. Wars, after all, can only be lost; now is the city's time to win the peace.

A U.S. State Department travel warning, in effect since July 1999, advises citizens to use caution in Bosnia and Herzegovina (for updates, check travel.state.gov). Central Sarajevo is free of land mines, but it can still be dangerous in the suburbs and surrounding hills. Keep to the sidewalks and paved surfaces, and if you drive out of town, don't pull your car off the road or get out and walk along the shoulder. Concerned visitors can attend the frequent briefings given at the city's Mine Action Centre (387-71/201-298).