City on the Edge of Forever

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Just as the gray houses and snow-covered ground emerge from the thick late-winter fog, the airplane banks sharply up, its engines straining for altitude. The captain apologizes; he could not see the landing lights, and on the approach to the Sarajevo international airport, there can be no mistakes. Rocky slopes of the surrounding mountains, shrouded in fog and covered with snow, are unforgiving. The second approach, 15 minutes later, is successful. As the aircraft touches the runway, passengers applaud. It’s a tradition for Sarajevo landings.

On the road from the airport into the city, blemishes of the 1992-95 war are still very much in evidence, often right next to bright new buildings, in sharp contrast. Much of the city looks thus, a hodgepodge of old and new, ruined and rebuilt, healed over and still nursing wounds from the past.

Jewel of the Valley

Established in the mid-15th century as a caravan stop for Ottoman merchants, the old part of Sarajevo is nestled in a narrow valley between steep hills, divided by a shallow, muddy rivulet called Miljacka. As it flows westward to merge with the river Bosna not far from its source, Miljacka travels forward through history: from the Turkish sarays and mosques, through Austro-Hungarian churches and office buildings, down to the early 20th century apartment homes and Communist-era concrete hives that account for over half of modern Sarajevo. Even out west, where the valley widens considerably, it is still ringed on all sides with hills and mountains; the city appears as if in a bowl.

Occasionally, clouds gather over the hilltops, putting a lid on the bowl and sealing everyone in. During the winter, fog banks hover low over the valley, making air travel impractical. Local poets have spun many a verse about the fog and the rain, just as they’ve celebrated the fabled blossoms of spring. On a sunny day, however, one can climb up to a dozen vantage points along the edges of the bowl and be treated to a magnificent panorama of civilization spanning the entire horizon.

Unfortunately, the heavy shroud of politics that hovers constantly over Sarajevo and all of Bosnia is far more oppressive than the fleeting clouds, and completely lacks the metaphorical equivalent of the sunny day’s panoramic promise.

Plunder for Nothing

Bosnia is a country of too many governments. Sarajevo houses the joint government, the Muslim-Croat Federation government, its own cantonal government and a city government, on top of four urban counties and five suburban ones. Communist-era laws, regulating every aspect of human action, have mostly been kept – overlaid with the wartime legislation, the Dayton Constitution, and the postwar mishmash of welfare-state "reforms" coming from both the U.S. and the EU. The result can be generously described as a difficult mess of clashing legal traditions, principles, and practices – none of which are in the least conducive to liberty.

In January 2006, following the demands of its international patrons, the joint Bosnian government introduced a 17 percent "value-added tax" (VAT) applicable to every commercial transaction. The ensuing price hike, predictable by everyone except the government economists, has had a severe impact on many livelihoods. Because business, labor, and finances are so highly regulated – and enforced by powerful legions of unaccountable officials – most Bosnians, of whatever ethnicity, have a hard time finding work. Private businesses that manage to operate with a profit despite the terrible burdens of laws and regulations pay their employees on time, at least. Police in the Muslim-Croat Federation have gone a month without pay, because their lawmakers have been unable to agree on budgetary disbursements; the lawmakers themselves are paid promptly, of course.

As for the VAT, the enormous sums of money it has redirected from productive private transactions into the joint state treasury have been sitting there since January, because the lawmakers cannot agree on how to allocate any of it. Meanwhile, most people object to the fact that food, medicine, and books are taxed at the same rate as cars, alcohol, cigarettes, and jewelry, but no one has challenged the very existence of the VAT on principle. Bear in mind that, since none of the money thus plundered has been disbursed yet, the VAT has so far had no positive impact on the economy whatsoever.

Glitter and Ruin

Another serious hindrance to economic development is unresolved ownership of property – from real estate to factories, mines, waterways, and so on. Here as well, politics is king. Government officials who presided over many shady privatization deals have pocketed millions, while hundreds of workers have ended up jobless.

While most houses and apartment homes have been privatized, a number – those built prior to 1945, when the Communists nationalized everything – remain in legal limbo, with tens of thousands of city-dwellers unable to convert their state-issued vouchers into legal ownership of their homes. A bill regulating these dwellings has been in parliamentary procedure for years, bogged down by special interest groups with claims to property taken in 1945.

These property disputes explain why, throughout the city, one can see a new or beautifully restored building right next to a dilapidated ruin, festooned with signs warning of falling debris. Not all of the destruction can be blamed on the war. The grand old hotel Evropa, just a block away from the street corner where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, was not destroyed by artillery fire; it was stripped by looters and scavengers. With gaping holes where windows used to be, and the frontal façade completely eroded, water drips from exposed bricks as if the building itself is weeping over its cruel fate. Just a few meters away, shops with polished glass doors sell expensive crystal and designer clothing.

On the other hand, there is no dispute over the ownership of streets and roads in Sarajevo, yet they are in such a horrid state of disrepair as to easily compete for notoriety with the potholed streets of Washington, D.C.

Revenge of the Hype

When one considers how much money the various governments extract from commerce in Bosnia, it is a miracle any economic activity still takes place. Yet it does; commerce is like breathing, a natural and inevitable human action. Where government-regulated markets fail, the "gray" and black markets step in. The most recent case in point concerns Grbavica, a feature film that recently triumphed at the Berlin film festival.

Mainstream Bosnian Muslim press has hyped the film and its director, Jasmila Zbanic, because it promotes their wartime propaganda about "systematic rape" allegedly practiced by Bosnian Serbs. Zbanic has made political statements both in Berlin and since returning to Sarajevo, and is an outspoken advocate of recognizing the women raped in wartime as a separate victim category, with state benefits. All of Sarajevo is plastered over with billboards advertising Grbavica, and schools organize trips to movie theaters to see the film. However, it is only available in two single-screen theaters in town, twice a day.

Whenever demand outstrips supply like that, markets – legal or otherwise – step in. Pirated DVDs of Grbavica have appeared on the streets of Sarajevo, along with other domestic and foreign releases. Zbanic went on national television to bemoan this "theft from Bosnian cinematography," but the piracy is not likely to stop. The makers of Grbavica have become victims of their own success. Had they organized legal DVD sales in addition to theatrical screenings, there would have been no demand for pirated copies. Such complete lack of market research and common sense has consistently plagued modern "Bosnian cinematography." Critically acclaimed they may be, but until someone gets their act together, films coming out of Sarajevo will remain commercial failures.

Scars and Promises

A walk through Sarajevo is a stroll through paradoxes of modernity. It is the capital of a multi-ethnic state, yet there are more Chinese than Serbs within its limits, and Croats aren’t far behind. People out for a walk sporting the latest European fashions are often just as unemployed (officially) as the panhandlers in rags with whom they share the streets. There is no lack of high-tech hardware, from mobile phones to computers, but without infrastructure, reliable Internet access is still out of reach for most people. Meanwhile, thousands of recent immigrants to the city are functionally illiterate. Sixty-plus years after WWII, German and Italian troops tour the city as "peacekeepers." Foreigners visiting or working here pass by the handful of spots where Wahhabi fundamentalists peddle jihadist literature and videos without batting an eye – as if those were local flavor as much as the exquisite brass plates and coffee sets, or handcrafted leather shoes.

In the old part of Sarajevo, within a square mile, there is a major mosque, an Orthodox basilica, a Catholic cathedral, and a Sephardic synagogue (the Ashkenazi synagogue is a museum now). Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andric commented once that none of their clocks ever strike the same time, symbolizing not so much diversity as dissonance, distrust, and even hatred among the different communities. Undercurrents of that hatred are still felt in the media; one elderly Muslim politician just recently said the only solution for Bosnia would be for Americans to "wring the Serbs’ necks."

Both sheltered and strangled by the hills and mountains surrounding it, Sarajevo is a place of sharp contrasts, paradoxes, and frustrating riddles. It is also a place of great beauty, when thousands of lights flicker all over the hillsides as the last rays of a golden sunset fade into the deep purple night sky. Sarajevo bears the scars of modernity – total war, welfare state, nihilistic morality. That in spite of it all, things of great beauty have sprung forth here is a testament to the tenacity of civilization.

Perhaps beauty and liberty are the metaphorical equivalent of a bright sunny day, which may yet come if the dark clouds and thick fog of politics and hatred ever lift their pressure from the mountain bowl in which this city rests. Like the river Bosna, which emerges just west of Sarajevo to embark on a difficult path north through the mountains, that hope springs eternal.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.