The very first memories of the 30-year-old mayor is when the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina was under siege. But now it's also time to move on.
SARAJEVO — Benjamina Karic makes a discreet entrance at Morica Han, Sarajevo's only remaining caravanserai, a type of roadside inn. The local filmmaker Danis Tanovic is currently shooting the final scene of his next film, "Deset u pola," and a technician turns on a fire hose to spray the actors with artificial rain. Having escaped the sprinkling, Karic chats for an hour with the actors and producers, seemingly amazed by this first film shoot in the city since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Karic never loses the radiant smile that has accompanied her since her election as mayor of Sarajevo. It was on April 8, her 30th birthday, becoming the youngest mayor in the the history of this iconic capital. "And only the second woman!" she adds. A third point of pride is that she was elected "unanimously" by all political parties of the 26-vote city council.
The election of the young academic — a professor of law, with a dual degree in history — was largely the result of an unexpected turn of political events in the city's complicated politics. After the victory of an anti-nationalist movement (composed of several disparate parties) in November's municipal elections, the leaders of the coalition, called "The Four," announced the election of veteran Bogic Bogicevic, who had been the last representative of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Yugoslav collegiate presidency in Belgrade in 1991. Despite being a member of the Serbian community, he had said No to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic during a vote on the imposition of martial law. He then moved to Sarajevo, where he lived during the war and the siege of the city (1992-1995), and where he remains extremely popular.
"When people are hungry and not yet vaccinated against COVID-19, why should City Hall have new cars?"
For reasons that are still unclear, Bogicevic withdrew his candidacy. His movement, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), then proposed to the other members of the "Four" the candidacy of Karic, who was then its largely unknown vice president. Not only was she accepted by the other winners of the municipal elections, but she was also elected with the votes of the defeated nationalist parties.
Karic says her membership in the SDP is "a family tradition" going back to the time of her grandparents and the Yugoslav communists. But she only left the party's youth movement to really enter politics two years ago, after her university thesis. The appointment to the post of mayor was "a surprise" and "a great honor." And Bogic Bogicevic behaved like a gentleman.
"My first message of congratulations was from Bogic," Karic says. "And when he came to visit me at the town hall, he brought me all the notes he had prepared for his term as mayor. "
Benjamina Karić at a meeting with Deputy Minister for EU and international trade Martina Tauberová, Prague, 2021 — Photo: Benjamina Karić
The first decisions of the young mayor made her immediately popular with Sarajevans. On the first day, she sold all the company cars in the town hall, except for one, which was kept for protocol purposes. "When people are hungry and not yet vaccinated against COVID-19, why should City Hall have new cars?" she says. Then she ruthlessly dismissed all the consultants paid by the mayor's office and various institutes and surrounded herself with about 20 unpaid consultants.
For years, Sarajevo had been in the grasp of the Party of Democratic Action, led by former president Bakir Izetbegovic. The party was driven by nationalism, which is not the only scourge that has fractured Bosnia for the past 30 years, as well as corruption and clientelism.
Karic is not a revolutionary, however, and continues to support many of the unfinished projects of her predecessors. "I am part of a tradition. Every mayor in Sarajevo has contributed," she says. In addition to her anti-corruption campaign, she says her efforts will be "devoted to the environment and tourism. Her favorite predecessor is Emerik Blum, the only Jewish mayor of the multi-ethnic city, who she says was "a forerunner in culture and the environment" in the 1980s. He was also a builder, just before Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984.
She wants to emphasize what makes Sarajevo special among cities in the Balkans.
However, national politics and the consequences of the war are never far away. "The political atmosphere is bad, and I don't believe that our anti-nationalist coalition can ever be in power in this country," says Karic.
The daughter of a Bosnian Muslim father and a Serbian mother, she says she doesn't think in terms of ethnic origins. She visited both the memorials of Jasenovac, the Croatian Ustasha concentration camp of World War II where hundreds of thousands of Serbs perished; as well as Srebrenica, where the Serbian army carried out the worst killing of the Bosnian Muslims in the war of the 1990s. "It's politics that prevents people from reconciling…" she says. "Normal people do not need to be reconciled, they are ready to live together."
Karic wants to emphasize what makes Sarajevo special among cities in the Balkans: "A European city, cosmopolitan, Olympic, a citizen city, antifascist, libertarian," as she described in her first speech as mayor, paying tribute to the "values' and "bravery" of the Sarajevans throughout their history, and especially during the siege inflicted by the Serbian army, resulting in 11,541 deaths.
Karić speaks with Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Schallenberg in Sarajevo, 4 May 2021 — Wikimedia Commons User @Österreichisches Außenministerium
The war, which broke out at the time of her first birthday in spring 1992, is also the mayor's first memory. "It was towards the end of the war, I was about four years old. I was sitting in the living room and my grandmother was preparing breakfast in the kitchen. Bullets went through the house and there was a fire in the hallway. I remember my grandmother pouring a pot of water on the flames. Three out of four rooms burned. My toys burned."
Karic recounts this memory in her stately office in Vijecnica, a former library bombed and burned by the Serbian army in 1992 that was reopened in 2014 as the headquarters of City Hall. She makes no attempt to hide the tears streaming down her face. She isn't scared of her emotions.
Then she dries her tears, adjusts her suit and walks with a determined step toward the room where the city council awaits her. "The important thing is our anti-fascist tradition, that Sarajevans are anti-fascists in their hearts," she concludes. "We must not forget, but now we must move forward."