What does Sarajevo look like today? Nearly two decades after a devastating siege, the city’s reconstruction tells the story of both renewal and a troubled history not quite healed.
SARAJEVO - This is one inventory of this city's past and present: among 6,000 local structures listed before 1992, 3,226 were damaged or destroyed during the war. Today, 80% of those structures have been protected or rebuilt.
Lidja Micic is proud of this progress in her native city. In her office, along the reddish river Miljacka, the head of Sarajevo's Heritage Protection office describes the bridges being soldered again, towers being rebuilt, churches and mosques that have acquired a new roof.
"The situation is much better today. Everything is written down in this," she says, pointing to a thick, handsome book that tracks the rebuilding efforts. Considering the economic crisis facing both the city and country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one might wonder if the money wouldn't have been more useful spent elsewhere. Still, heritage is not to be taken lightly in this complicated city.
Is Sarajevo finally itself again? That is a question every tourist wonders upon returning to "the Balkans' Jerusalem". The pictures of snipers bombing the city from surrounding hills, of the burning library, are untarnished in the collective memory of the West. The media coverage stopped with the 1995 Dayton Peace agreement, a cease-fire that has held for nearly 16 years, but never meant to stand as the new country's founding document. If the media coverage during the 45-month siege of Sarajevo was strong, not much has followed.
And indeed, the city was born again. Little by little, bulldozers took away the junk so the rebuilding could begin of a city that now counts 310,000 residents. The old Bascarsija Ottoman neighborhood has been preserved, the Markale market, twice bombed, was rebuilt, and in the historic district the infamous "Sarajevo roses', those flower-shaped marks left by shells exploding on the concrete, are rare. Along the main road, the outdoor cafés, always crowded in the summer, can easily compete with French or Italian establishments.
Mango, Swatch, Adidas…names of big international firms have opened stores in the main street of the city, with the same merchandise as in Europe and at the same prices. The BBI, a shiny shopping centre, welcomes prestigious clients, though alcohol is forbidden because investors come from the Persian Gulf. The coming headquarters of Al Jazeera for the Balkans will be built in Sarajevo. Meanwhile, the big historic mosques and the Orthodox cathedral have regained all their charms, parks are clean, the chess players have taken back center stage. And the tourists are indeed coming back.
Signs of war on the outskirts
Things change, however, upon leaving the central part of the city. In Dobrinja, the Olympic neighborhood made of blocks of buildings separated by large lawns, people just have to look up to the tops of the buildings to see some of the marks left by bullets in the concrete. "It's mostly the facades that have been improved", says the architect Nenad Basic, "The front is rebuilt, but not the inside."
Holes in the concrete are still everywhere, and so are pot-holed pavements. Dobrinja suffered much during the war, the district running along the infamous "Sniper Alley." Nenad came back in April for the first time since the war. He says his neighborhood birthplace has not changed that much, except for the big mosque built by the Saudis. In the countryside, close to Sarajevo, the landscape is yet again different. Everywhere, shattered houses remind people that they once had owners, who are dead or in exile: the ethnic cleansing and the war chased more than one out of two Bosnians from their home. It is impossible to deny that something terrible happened here.
"Sarajevo is like a phoenix. We survived a massacre, you know: 13,600 deaths, including 1,600 children," says Sarajevo's mayor, Alija Behmen. In his office, he has a picture of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former International Olympic Committee (ICO) president, who brought the summer Games to the city in 1984. A clip-framed copy of a Jewish sacred book, the Haggadah, lies next to it. It was saved twice, first from the Nazis and then from the Serbian attacks. According to this former minister, the city is doing better now. Of course there are numbers of bank accounts on all the city's website pages that call for donations: "We always need money. But the situation has improved. The city center is restored ; the schools, the hospitals and the factories function again."
The only giant exception is the National Library, which lost 80% of its books in a huge fire lit by Serbian soldiers. Despite financial help from the European Union, scaffolds barely hide the still blackened walls. Projects are developing but nothing has been scheduled. How does Alija Behmen explain this? "Corruption is every society's cancer," he sighs.
As always, the architectural issue is as problematic as the political one. To talk about churches and mosques is to question this once one-of-a-kind cohabitation among Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox, or what's left of it. People living in Sarajevo all agree that their city has changed. The reconstruction of the city's buildings does not conceal the changes among the population. Many intellectuals left, during and after the war, weakening the social diversity. Old families had to leave their apartments to the profit of displaced people supported by paramilitaries.
Thus, the sociological diversity of the city kept changing, provoking deep upheaval. One meaningful example is the Oslobodenje tower which hosted the widely admired independent daily newspaper that continued to come out, come what may, during the war. It was destroyed to make room for the spectacular Avaz Twist Tower, which now hosts a tabloid. The highly modern building towers above the city.
An obsessive question remains: was it necessary to rebuild everything as it was? Wouldn't it be better to change everything and to enter once and for all into the 21st century? Some say that would be crazy. Certain buildings represent so much of the city's heritage that their disappearance would affect its identity. The pieces of modern architecture that can be found in Sarajevo are rarely beautiful: big glass cube buildings hosting banks and foreign companies and running untidily along the former "Sniper Alley."
Jean-François Doualas, who has never been back since leaving in 1994 for France says: "Sarajevo was built by Ottoman merchants, around their caravanserai. It is not surprising that everything that is built today revolves around trading." Thus, according to this Paris-based architect: "The problem in Sarajevo is not architecture, but city planning. The different spaces are not interconnected."
But perhaps the biggest question is the lack of real interaction between the "Serbian districts' and the "Bosnian districts'. The streetcar line that serves the city center stops before the Serbian districts. Bosnians from Dobrinja do not go to the hospital located in the Serbian part of the neighborhood. And so even though 80% of the listed monuments have been officially saved, the most important one -- that of a peaceful cohabitation between peoples -- is still to be rebuilt.
Read the original story in French