SARAJEVO, A LOVE STORY. BY RÉMY OURDAN
Twenty years ago, Sarajevo came as a surprise. Back then, the winds of freedom that swept over Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall turned into tragedy in Yugoslavia.
As Yugoslavia heaved its last death throes, trapped between the evils of nationalism and criminal ambition there existed a -little country, virtually unknown to the outside world, called -Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its capital, Sarajevo, epitomised a -“Yugoslav” spirit, and it had lived through a golden age in the 1980s. -People there wanted to live just as they always had: together, without worrying about who was Muslim, or Serb, or Croat. Sarajevo -embodied a culture of tolerance, and of nonchalance.
Elsewhere, people waved nationalist flags and sang -nationalist songs. In Sarajevo, people demonstrated with portraits of Tito. And it was by shooting into one such rally that Radovan Karadzic’s snipers set off the war. Ratko Mladic’s gunmen quickly stepped in. Both acted on orders from Slobodan Milosevic from Belgrade.
To Sarajevans, this was a shock beyond words. It was such a surprise, in fact, that between the outbreak of war on April 6 and the surrounding of the city on May 2, 1992, in spite of the fact that the first battles had started and the city remained open, many chose not to flee. Few in Sarajevo took the war seriously. Then the siege began.
With the siege and bombing, the foreign correspondents came. In general, reporters are unstable, hurried individuals. They come, and they go. They are often good professionals, committed to telling the truth. But they rarely linger, always rushing off to the other side of the world. It’s just how things are.
In Sarajevo, things were different. The war was also a surprise to the correspondents, and for some, the need to stay in Sarajevo quickly became apparent.
Staggered by what they saw, many reporters either remained, to live in Sarajevo, or else returned frequently. They forged ties to the city and to Sarajevans. Often, even those who were wounded came back as soon as they were released from hospital, so they could keep telling the story. They, too, had become Sarajevan.
The debate on their real role will continue for decades. -Historians will find it hard to agree. Most correspondents think they served no useful purpose, still surprised at having covered the longest siege in modern history while no-one intervened to save Sarajevo and Bosnia beyond.
On the other hand, some -Sarajevans say that even though foreign intervention came late, by the end of summer 1995, the city would never have been able to put up such resistance without the journalists’ daily coverage, without a minimum of international attention. No-one has the -answer to these questions.
When the idea was floated last year among the war correspondent community to revisit Sarajevo for the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war, it was met with enthusiasm. Since 1995, each had held Sarajevo deep within his or her heart. Some had returned many times during peacetime; others had never seen the city again. To all of them, the war represented something important, almost vital: an idea of freedom, of resistance, of a life shared, of dignity.
Then I wanted Sarajevans to decide for themselves whether this return of foreign correspondents was appropriate, 20 years later. It was for them whether a reunion of old friends would become a moment of Sarajevan memory, of Bosnian memory. For six months before the reunion on 6 April, 2012, I met with dozens of Sarajevans, telling them that they could make what they wished of the return of those who shared their darkest hours.
Sarajevans of two generations answered positively and -emotionally: the war generation, with whom we lived our lives under siege, and the younger generation, who had known only childhood chaos, now aged between twenty and thirty.
“Never forget that we saw you live here with us, during the siege,” one friend told me. “On the one hand we like you because you stayed by our side. And on the other hand, because we had no electricity with which to watch television, and no longer received any newspapers, we have no idea what you said about us at the time. We want to rediscover it. We must share our memories.”
This is how we envisaged the return of the correspondents. This book is the testimony of the photojournalists; others are bringing books they have written, films they have made. All are returning to a city they loved, that they still love.
To love Sarajevo came as a surprise, because nobody ever -imagined that this war could happen, or that it would be possible, or decent, to love a city under siege and bombing. To return is the continuation of a love story, which in spite of post-war torments for some, or the chaos and carnage elsewhere in the world for others, will never die ■