A once-tolerant city faces the schisms of the new Bosnia

BRUCE WALLACE January 22 1996


A once-tolerant city faces the schisms of the new Bosnia

BRUCE WALLACE January 22 1996




In the pallid light of a dead winter’s morning, the Serbian women of Ilidza come to grieve. Over the graves of their husbands, sons and brothers, their sobs mix with the wind that sighs through the forested hills just outside Sarajevo. Attractive, dark-haired Mila Popadic is among them, kneeling on the cold ground to kiss the wooden cross that marks her husband’s plot.

Many people would not waste tears on Obrad Popadic. Some would even call him a war criminal. Popadic commanded the ruthless Ilidza brigade until he was killed in a blast of machine-gun fire in 1994, but by then his soldiers had perfected their terrifying art of evicting Muslim and Croatian civilians from the Sarajevo suburb. It was from Ilidza’s hills that Serbian soldiers lobbed shells into Sarajevo’s downtown, sniped at civilians or closed its airport at will. Now, the Dayton peace agreement is doing what the Bosnian army could not: handing control of the Serbian stronghold back to the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government. So Mila Popadic, weeping with chest-tightened anguish, has come to collect her husband’s remains, to take him with her when she abandons Ilidza.


Loudly, almost uniformly, Ilidza’s 19,000 Serbs insist they will not live under Bosnian control. They are packing up and fleeing somewhere, anywhere else inside Serb-held territory. Many have vowed to burn their homes as they go; others are digging up their dead. Mila Popavic had hoped to exhume her husband’s body on this mild January morning, the day after celebrating what she said would be her last Orthodox Christmas in Ilidza. She was already packed. But the coffin maker had fallen behind the demand—he, too, had to take time to ship his belongings out of town—and the casket for transporting Obrad’s body would not be ready for another day.

“People come every day to ask my permission to exhume their sons and husbands,” says Father Vasiljevic Momir, a local Orthodox priest, sitting in the church office where he greets visitors and dispenses advice from behind a table and a screen of tobacco smoke. ‘"What else are mothers to do about their sons? They are afraid of what the Muslims will do to those graves after the Serbs leave, so they want to take their sons with them.” The priest is a man of God,

A once-tolerant city faces the schisms of the new Bosnia

but he also knows the mood of his hardline congregation. “Even though it is against church rules to desecrate a grave, I tell them it is OK,” he says, lighting another cigarette. There has been a request, he says, for a mass exhumation of Ilidza’s cemeteries.

And so another dark coda is added to the Balkan horror: Bosnia’s Serbs, determined to live apart and alone, taking their deceased relatives into refuge from their enemies. The peace agreement initialled in Paris last month has not eased the hangover of bitterness, cynicism and hatred from this 43-month war among neighbors. NATO’s Implementation Force (IFOR)—including 601 Canadian soldiers as of last week—may have arrived to enforce the deal.

Benetton and Bono, the Irish rock singer, may have added a dash of color to Sarajevo. But there is no inoculation against virulent emotions. As if to destroy any claim that the shooting was over, a rocket fired from a Bosnian Serb hilltop overlooking Sarajevo ripped into a downtown tram before dinner one night last week, killing a woman and wounding 19 other people. The attack prompted a sharp IFOR response, with French soldiers peppering the Serb-held hills with fire and mounting a search for the attackers.

Until that deadly moment, Sarajevo’s 380,000 residents were continuing their adjustment to what passes for peace and normalcy. French soldiers dismantled the Serbian checkpoints outside Ilidza, officially ending the city’s three and a half years of siege. Cars that escaped war damage now roar recklessly along pot-holed streets, I while cafés in the pedestrian part of the old city swell with people and cigarette smoke (no one is likely soon to convince Sarajevans about the dangers of driving too fast or smoking too much). Elec! tricity is starting to be taken for granted again. Where

äthey once dashed, people were getting accustomed to strolling along so-called Sniper Alley, the main bouleI vard leading from the airport into the old city centre that is intermittently exposed to Serbian rifle scopes. ‘7 still run,” said 19-year-old English student Senada Mavric with a tight smile. “But the best result is that the fear of being in the street has gone.”

Rebuilding will be another

matter. Sarajevo shows its physical scars from every vantage. Skyscrapers droop from the bombardment, their wires, steel rods and concrete guts spilling out of blasted frames. Streets and sidewalks bear the pockmarks of old mortar fire every few steps. Sarajevo was never bombed from the air. Its damage was inflicted shell by shell, a nibble at a time, and the effect on the city’s architecture is a visible tragedy. In 1992, Serbian gunners fired phosphorous shells into the city’s beautiful, almost century-old library and destroyed its millionbook collection. The library was a target with no strategic value, and the psychological wounds of such acts are more difficult to gauge. “We had more energy in 1993, ’94,” says Mavric. ‘We are all so exhausted that when the electricity came back last fall, we should have celebrated. But people just said, ‘Oh yeah,’ and went on with their lives.” Fatigue and cynicism are understandable from a people who believe that—until now, at least—the world has done little more than bear witness to their suffering. Sarajevans portrayed their resistance to the siege as a moral act, a defiant stand to save a place where civilized, liberal values were under attack by Bosnian Serbs waging a war of ethnic purity. “In this war, there was one side preaching tolerance,

the rule of law, the idea of multiculturalism,” says Mirsad Purivatra, a Sarajevan who is the executive director of the Open Society Fund for Bosnia, a group backed by New York-based financier George Soros. “The other side stood for totalitarianism and concentration camps.” Sarajevo’s history enhanced the idea that it was ground zero in a struggle between good and evil. Early in the century, the city was the place where an assassination spawned a world war. The narrow, cobbled bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot by a Serbian extremist in 1914 still stands in the devastated old city. But Sarajevo was also an Olympic city, the cosmopolitan crossroads of the

Balkans where Muslims, Croats, Serbs and Jews mingled and married. Many Sarajevans are insulted when asked to identify their ethnic or religious background. “I am a Sarajevan,” they say. For Purivatra, “the most important thing is that Sarajevo, with all it represents, has been defended.” But war damages people. It remains to be seen whether the Sarajevo that survived the longest European siege this century still matches its enlightened image, or if 43 months of terror snuffed out its spirit of tolerance along with 10,000 lives.

“Sarajevo is a Muslim city now.” The assertion comes not from some black-swathed mujahedeen fighter but from an approving, frail 20-year-old Serb Orthodox woman. Dejana Moldovan stayed in Sarajevo during the war—although she says she is desperate to

leave the country now—and her sympathies lie with the Bosnian government. “If Banja Luka [the largest Serb-held city] can be a Serbian town, then the Muslims have the right to make Sarajevo a Muslim city,” she says.

But her boyfriend disagrees. He is a Muslim, a soldier in the Bosnian army, and he gives his name only as Eddie. His war began in April, 1992, when he marched in a peace demonstration in downtown Sarajevo and was - fired upon by separatist Ser| bian snipers. The experience § made him enlist, although he I says he was also motivated “ to fight to liberate his mother’s family home in eastern Bosnia. Eddie’s war ended last May when he stepped on a land mine. He is lucky to only limp.

“Sarajevo is just... Sarajevo, as it always was,” he argues, playing with the bill of his baseball cap. “Attitudes may not be quite what they were before the war, but you can still be a Serb or Croat and live here. Did we destroy their churches? Can they not walk around freely? My friends accept Dejana because, in Sarajevo, we do not hate people for who they are.

“But I hate 99.9 per cent of the Serbs on the other side,” Eddie continues. He and Dejana both expect the fighting to resume one day, and their realism shows the hardness, the edge to Sarajevo now. “We didn’t put the Serbs of Sarajevo into concentration camps,” Eddie points out. But he adds: “Maybe we should have.”

‘We have discovered that we are capable of surviving on very little,” says English student Mavric. ‘We did without electricity, without water. In those conditions you learn about yourself. It makes you tougher.” The deprivations have also changed the local power structure. Many of those who left Sarajevo were the professionals, the wealthy, or those with family connections in other countries. (“Maybe it sounds like an official line, but those of us who stayed

concluded that the ones who left put themselves before their country,” Mavric adds.) They were replaced by traumatized refugees flooding in from other Bosnian towns that fell to Serbian or Croatian forces. A new class of smugglers and black marketeers emerged with the blessing of government officials, making for dangerous journeys through Serbian fire to haul back goods. They got rich in the process, and no one expects them to just fade away. “How do you now wrestle power back from a criminal element that is used to prospering?” asked a top American military officer last week as he flew out of Sarajevo.

The Bosnian government has taken flack for not reassuring Serbs that they will be safe once Bosnian troops are allowed to take control of their areas in March. Last week, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic took a step in that direction by promising to pass an amnesty for all but the war criminals among separatist Serbs. But few people expect it will be enough to convince them to stay under Bosnian rule.

“An amnesty would be a good first sign of trust,” granted Father Momir in Ilidza. “But we are people who feel we won the war, and now we have to give up our homes because the great powers have imposed an unfair peace.” Defiant to the end, Ilidza’s Serbian soldiers marked Orthodox Christmas Eve on Jan. 5 by rattling gunfire into the air throughout the night.

In Sarajevo the next morning, dozens of Serbs bundled up in heavy coats and gathered within sight of those guns to attend Christmas mass in a domed Orthodox church on Sniper Alley. The Serbs inside Sarajevo endured a difficult war: shelled and under siege from their own ethnic brethren; branded traitors by separatist Serbs for staying in the city; regarded suspiciously by some government supporters as a possible fifth column. “Well, it was no worse for us than for anyone else,” says Mirjana Rajacic softly with a smile of equanimity. Outside, the church’s two heavy bells are ringing in Christmas celebration, the song drifting into the damp air of the unheated building. Dozens of yellow candles illuminate Rajacic’s breath in the cold air. She is 45, single, and has sought solace during the darkest times by singing in four choirs, including a Croatian one. “Music kept me happy during this war,” she says, clutching a traditional oak leaf for Christmas. “Music,” she says, “is what kept me from going crazy.”

Tuzla—forgotten, ignored—is at last on the map. This industrial city, a paean to the lack of imagination of the old Communist planners, suddenly finds itself playing host to a massive overseas deployment of American troops and all the media attention that goes with it. Like Sarajevo, Tuzla was an ethnically mixed city before the war, and its 200,000 residents suffered their own tough siege in the winter of 1994. But even though Tuzla was declared a safe area by the United Nations, it never mustered the international attention or sympathy that Sarajevo did.

No one in the West wrote plays, sang songs or made movies about Tuzla. ‘Take a picture, take a picture,” an intense teenager insists to a foreigner as they stand around a makeshift memorial in

Businessmen had visions of profiting like the legendary Saigon madams

Tuzla’s ragged old town where 71 civilians were killed by rocket fire last May. Tuzla’s survivors are seeking respect for their pain, although their feelings stop short of outright resentment for Sarajevo. ‘We were cold and without power just like they were,” says sadeyed Tamara Trbojevic, 19. “But at least we didn’t have nearly the same amount of shelling.”

While the American soldiers have put Tuzla in the spotlight, few of them are getting much of a look around. They are confined to their muddy base when they are not working, dashing the hopes of

Tuzla’s mayor and businessmen, who had visions of profiting like the legendary Saigon madams in the 1960s. Most of what the U.S. troops have seen so far has been limited to the foothilled countryside on the road from Croatia, down a highway they have nicknamed Arizona for a taste of home. The air around Tuzla smells like a charcoal barbecue and the snow in the hills seems to fall already gray. “This looks just like the West Virginia county where I live,” said one U.S. Army sergeant, pulling a photo of his home town out of his wallet the way others would show off their wife or kids.

But the residents of Tuzla have high hopes for IFOR. The UN mission was greatly reviled by the people it was sent to help. “People here can’t separate their emotions from reality,” explains Trbojevic, who still works for the UN’s civilian affairs branch. ‘They thought the UN was here to break the siege. They never really understood the mandate or the mission. And now they have even higher hopes for IFOR.”

Despite some verbal sniping at the new kid in town from its own allies, the Americans’ military reputation and power are getting results. The British and French may sneer at the struggle the U.S. Army had to lay its pontoon bridge across the flooded Sava River. The locals in Tuzla titter at the way Americans mispronounce Bosnian place names (even Admiral Leighton Smith, IFOR’s commander in chief, draws smiles by referring to Banja Luka—pronounced Ban-ya—as if it were a stringed instrument). And outgoing UN soldiers can’t resist poking fun at the Americans’ bristling readiness for confronta-

tion. But the warring factions have responded as directed, melting away from their front lines. And it was the UN peacekeepers, after all, who kept getting taken hostage by the Serbs.

In fact, danger seems remote in Tuzla this winter. On clear nights, boisterous teenagers congregate in big groups outside cafés and discos, just as they did on a warm evening last May when two shells smacked into the old city. UN experts concluded that the shells came from a Serbian position but could not have been intentionally aimed at the tiny square packed with kids that night. “Just bad luck,” was how one UN officer described it last week. The people of Tuzla are not so convinced. On a wall of the café, they have pasted photos of the 71 victims, their ages written underneath—most of them 19, 20, 21. The crater hole has not been paved over. People stop, pointing to the faces of those they knew, some touching the pictures the way American families often caress the names of the dead on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. The messages on the flowers that mark the spot are appeals for peace. “Peace, yesU said the teenager who had been urging the photo. “But we will not forget what they did.”

It is far too early to tell whether Bosnia is truly in a postwar period or if this is one more lull in the savagery. “It’s up to the parties to make peace,” has been the IFOR mantra, its spokesmen doing their best to lower expectations. U.S. President Bill Clinton visited his troops in Tuzla at the weekend, but balked at going to Sarajevo. The city’s airport is still far from secure, as Serbian gunners demonstrated by potting a few shots at a French transport plane.

But there are hopeful signs. Last week, Metropolitan Nikolai, the senior figure in Bosnia’s Orthodox Church whom the Bosnian government regards as an extremist, made a high-profile trip to Sarajevo from his base in Sokolac, a small Serb-held town east of the city, and appealed for reconciliation. In hard-core Ilidza, Father Momir noted that not everyone leaving the suburb was burning their homes behind them. “They hope that when this evil is over, they will be able to come back,” he said.

Even in the rubble of Sarajevo, there are hints that the city’s spirit was not extinguished. On Dec. 21, artists and city officials gathered in the waste and mortar of the library’s shell for the unveiling of a huge, colorful six-panel wall hanging donated by a Czech artist. Library director Enes Kujundzic used the occasion to deposit a book.

Late one afternoon last week, in the fading light on the back streets of the old city, 15-year-old Dario Vucic sat at the piano his father gave him for his birthday a year ago, his fingers stroking Mozart and Beethoven compositions out of the keys. He is a Croat, and his family fled the suburbs under Serbian threats, moving into a flat vacated by a family that had left Sarajevo. He attends music school now and says he lives for his love of the art. “When I would see people get shot in the streets, I would come home and play my piano,” he says in a quiet voice. He is a wisp of a boy and he cups both hands over his chest to make a point. “It made my heart get big again.” Serbian gunfire still crackled from the hills across the river. But as dusk fell in the old city, it was quickly drowned out by the sound of the muezzins’ call to prayer, and by the Mozart that floated down to the street from Vucic’s third-floor apartment. □