Rockers from old Yugoslavia reform to heal war's wounds

The vast audience came from all over the former Yugoslavia. Thousands of cars and hundreds of buses bearing the licence plates of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and all parts of Serbia and Montenegro were parked close to the horse race tracks of the Belgrade hippodrome. The Croatians and Bosnians even left their cars in Dedinje, the exclusive neighbourhood that was once the home of Mr Milosevic.

The concert on Tuesday night was the first given in Belgrade by Bijelo Dugme, (White Button), since the band re-formed in April after breaking up in 1989. Since then, the band's leader Goran Bregovic, 51, has composed music for several movies and has led the Weddings and Funerals band, which has taken Balkan and Gypsy music to an international audience. In what has proved an inspired decision, the musician decided to reunite the band and hold concerts in former Yugoslav capitals of Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade, in order to demonstrate that people separated by wars could at least share and enjoy a common musical heritage. The group's members traditionally included Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Bregovic himself is of mixed Serb-Croat origin and is married to a Muslim. More than 130,000 fans attended the concerts in Zagreb and Sarajevo, sharing songs, emotions and memories similar to those that were almost tangible in Belgrade.

Thousands of middle-aged and elderly fans sang along to songs such as "Let's go Boys and Lets Go Girls" that now belong to another era. Even members of the audience not born when Bijelo Dugme began their career in Sarajevo three decades ago knew the lyrics. "My parents kept all the albums of Bijelo Dugme and I learnt Serbo-Croat by listening to them," said Janez Koska, 21, who travelled from the Slovene capital of Ljubljana for the concert.

For most of the mixed audience, the reappearance of Bijelo Dugme on a Belgrade stage was a throwback to happier times, when citizens of the most liberal state in Communist Europe travelled abroad and embraced Western pop culture. The band introduced sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll to the Yugoslav federation. Their popularity spread across Eastern Europe.

"To me this was a journey to a better past," said Dragan Janackovic, 52, from Belgrade. "It brought back memories of the good years we once had together."

After the break-up of the band in 1989, Bregovic gained international fame with his soundtrack for the Cannes award-winning 1995 film, Underground, by his friend the Sarajevo director Emir Kusturica.

When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, Bregovic left Sarajevo for Paris, refusing to be drawn into politics. But his return to the stages of Sarajevo, Zagreb and Belgrade has excited commentators, who say the concerts show that people who shared the same history, culture and heritage for decades cannot easily break all bonds. The Sarajevo academic, Salih Foco, said that the performances had given hope for reconciliation among future generations.

"Politics has eaten 15 years of people's lives," Mr Foco said. "But it cannot replace the richness of life that existed in the former Yugoslavia."