Sarajevo: a resolution

Just before Christmas, the composer Nigel Osborne smuggled himself into Sarajevo, bringing the gift of music
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
It is surely the world's most surreal bus ride. At dawn, on the Sunday before Christmas, I arrive at the coach station beside the harbour in Split. There - an alarming, rusting hand-me-down from Communism - stands the bus to Sarajevo, already pack ed high with bursting baggage. An agitated but philosophical crowd presses in from the bus stand.

Predictably, the bus will not start. Finally it splutters bronchially into life, and begins to snake its way along the coast, through a bright Dalmatian morning. Some hours later, it swings inland to follow the valley of the Neretva. At Metkovic comes the first of several long delays at checkpoints. There is much scrutiny of documents; baggage is searched many times over, and in the guard house there are long telephone calls. On paper, there is a Federation of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. On a bus, it is like crossing into China.

Past Mostar, the bulk of the city still a depressing pile of rubble, the road becomes a stone track, and the bus shudders and groans over dynamited bridges, pontoons and precipitous descents. There is a puncture. Tahir, on his second bottle of wine, goeson noisily about the UN and "that bastard Mackenzie". The rest of the passengers tell him to shut up.

As a chill night descends, the bus passes along easier roads, through Bosnian-held territory, to Jablanac and Konjic. At Tarcin we are supposed to change to a better vehicle, but it has unaccountably disappeared, so we are to face the treacherous Igman road in the wrong bus with an exhausted driver. The Bosnian army tenuously holds the entrance to a narrow mountain track that winds its way over Mt Igman. At a checkpoint it becomes clear that my permission to take the "secret" route has not yet reached the First Army. But the angels are with me, and I'm allowed through.

The bus proceeds at walking pace with all lights off, playing hide-and-seek with the snipers in the frost and the moonlight. From time to time, violet sparks fly up from neighbouring hills and valleys. At one point a heavily armoured UN vehicle approaches with lights blazing and illuminates our bus for all to see.

Halfway down the other side of Igman, the bus stops. It is too dangerous to go further. In pitch blackness it disgorges its contents into a sea of jostling faces, village people looking to earn a little money helping with baggage.

I set off on the long hike down the mountain. In Edinburgh, I had asked Andy Kerr, music adviser for Lothian, how to pack an orchestra in a rucksack. These were the musical materials I needed for workshops in Sarajevo. He returned with a gift of exquisite miniature percussion instruments. They play a rhythmic accompaniment to my journey.

At the foot of the mountain, Hrasnica is under mortar attack. Eventually, I find the military police. Still no permission. I wait in a dimly lit bunker; calls are made on a field tele- phone. Suddenly, everything is arranged and I receive all the hospitality an army under fire can offer. There is a trip through once smart suburbs, now blackened and gutted, where groups of soldiers warm themselves by smouldering embers. Everywhere there are shadowy figures with rucksacks and bundles, moving swiftly through the darkness.

Then follows an extraordinary journey. The details remain secret, but there is a long crawl, and I have a sore head. I arrive in Sarajevo from beneath, emerging like a rabbit from a hole in the ground. In the dying years of the 20th century, this is how normal people make the journey to a proud, European capital city.

In Sarajevo, morale is as low as I have seen it during the war. The first snow of the third winter of the siege is falling heavily. There is little water, and an intermittent gas supply brings frequent explosions and deaths by asphyxiation. And savings are running out.

I stay with the poet Goran Simic in an attic in the old town. Goran is a Bosnian of Serb Orthodox family. (People in Sarajevo despise fatuous ethnic labels.) An aficionado of Sixties rock, he would rather settle down to the life of an old hippie, but, asa matter of "intellectual principle", takes a political stand against what he sees as a shameful Fascism.

I work alongside Goran and the Sarajevo String Quartet with a group of children in the first of a programme of creative workshops. The kids are well brought-up, courteous and a little shy. They have had to grow up quickly, and their conversation is sophisticated, but occasionally lurches into affecting childishness. These children could give the average Western politician a grown-up talking-to on Europe, power and responsibility.

We improvise text and musical material around one of Goran's poems. The children compose a melody that would make Gorecki weep; they set the words to a chant: "the end of the war is half an hour late... I'd rather not arrive in a new era locked inside an

armoured carrier."

In a cellar lit by the odd candle and fireflies of Drina cigarettes, Ibrahim Spahic talks about this year's Winter Festival. He wants to begin with a community opera. It will be called Europe and offered as "intellectual humanitarian aid" from Sarajevo to the rest of the continent. Bosnian black humour may still be king, but something has indeed happened to Europe in Sarajevo. The mayhem and betrayal has purged people's minds of almost all illusion. First there was disappointment, then anger, and now contempt for the outside world. Some have inevitably turned inward. But I know nowhere so strangely free of stereotyping and prejudice, where a human being is taken for the person they are, and what they do.

Ordinary people have had to learn to live on nothing. Most have remained heartbreakingly dignified and honest. The traditional spirit of hospitality and crazy generosity is still summoned from thin air. Perhaps there is hope that in better times Sarajevans will be the ones to find the "third way", that non-dogmatic mixture of vision, pragmatism and ethics which eluded the East European reformers, and which Europe needs urgently to locate. There may be despair and a justified paranoia, but most B osniansconsider themselves to be living in a certain kind of truth, and see the rest of the continent choking on complacency, greed and lies. In its dark way, it is a kind of enlightenment.

Returning through Venice, I take a favourite walk beside St Mark's. I try to force myself to look at this familiar beauty, but my mind is elsewhere. I know that some people have reserved expensive hotel rooms for New Year's Eve 1999. I resolve to keep mydate with the millennium in Sarajevo. With luck, it should be a hell of a party.