City Life: Sarajevo - Bosnia's new Islamic order

City Life: Sarajevo
Click to follow
The Independent Online
AS YOU LOOK down into the valley from the hillside suburb of Grbavica, it seems an idyllic scene. Smoke rises gently from the chimneys of the little red-brick houses, cherry trees are in blossom in the orchards. It is a vision of tranquillity.

Even the fact that you can drive easily to this point feels like a magical transformation. This patch of hillside was a favourite with the Serb snipers who for three years terrorised Sarajevo. People now saunter over a crossroads once known as the city's deadliest junction.

From Snipers' Alley - the broad, exposed avenue that everybody tried to avoid if possible - there rises now the comforting roar and rattle of cars and trams. In the city centre, dozens of cafes have opened up. In the evenings, the main shopping street turns into one great lively Balkan passeggiata, filled with the sound of gossip, gossip and more gossip.

The marketplace is bustling, piled high with local and imported produce. An almost invisible plaque commemorates the spot where "Serb evil-doers killed 67 citizens of Sarajevo on 5 February 1994." There is a clutch of fashionable stores - Dolce & Gabbana, Gianfranco Ferre, Versace - and travel agents advertise holidays in Vienna, Istanbul and New York. In short, it seems that Sarajevo is on a roll. A heartening reminder that wars come to an end, and scars heal.

Except that it is not true. The scars have not healed. Half the city is still in ruins, even while other parts have been restored. But that is not the heart of the problem. The real difficulty is in the attempt to rediscover normality.

Foreign military vehicles speeding around the city serve as a reminder that peace, such as it is, only comes courtesy of occupying armies. This country is still poisoned by the divisions that opened up during the war that officially ended in 1995.

You can in theory drive up the once impassable road from Sarajevo to Pale, the former headquarters for the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic. But Sarajevo taxis will not take you as far as Pale. They are too afraid. Instead, they drop you at a cafe in a rocky no-man's land. There, a clutch of Bosnian Serb taxi drivers wait to take passengers into Serb territory.

Few Serbs acknowledge that their countrymen did anything wrong during the three-year war. They blame everything on the fundamentalist Muslims.

In reality, Islamic fundamentalists in Bosnia were in the old days about as easy to find as a tequila sunrise in a Tehran bar.

Now, by contrast, Islam plays an important role. As a direct effect of the Karadzic-led lunacy - made worse by Bosnia's sense of abandonment by the West - Islamic organisations now occupy some of the most imposing buildings in the city centre. Admittedly, Sarajevo Beer is still advertised everywhere, and you can still get slivovitz in the cafes. But this is not the old secular Bosnia, not by a long chalk.

Nor is it just between the Serbs and the Muslims that wounds remain unhealed. A couple of hours' drive from Sarajevo is Mostar, whose famously elegant old bridge was repeatedly shelled and finally destroyed during the war. Mostar is now buzzing. Music, cafes, more Balkan gossip. But previously unthinkable psychological divisions are now set in stone.

Those who live in (Muslim) east Mostar are wary of contact with those in (Croat) west Mostar, after the bloody battles between the two sides. "I haven't been in the west for several years," said a 25-year-old in east Mostar, out for a stroll with his girlfriend. "I wouldn't dare."

Steve Crawshaw

Comments