When peace divides
A shift in character and identity is under way in Sarajevo
Sarajevo, 22 November 1997, THE FINANCIAL TIMES

The pock-marked facades and shrapnel-disfigured pavements of postwar Sarajevo frame what appear to be members of a thoroughly middle-class society, lips rouged and trousers neatly pressed. Look again and this prosperity, mirrored by the marble and brass of bustling cafes, splinters into a less glamorous image.

The cohesiveness of Sarajevo, famous before the war, when the city was hailed as an example of multicultural tolerance, and during the 43- month siege, when people bonded in bravery and basements, is vanishing under the legacy of war and a market economy.

Half the city's former residents are gone. About 60,000 Serbs fled after the signing of the US-brokered peace settlement, motivated by fear and their leaders' prop-aganda, while another 200,000 Sarajevans of all ethnicities had left earlier, in fear of their lives or to take a side during the war.

The circulation of Oslobodenje (Liberation), the newspaper which was a symbol of the city's independence and feistiness, has dropped from about 60,000 copies before the war to 30,000. Despite no longer having to cope with chronic paper shortages and sniper fire, Liberation has not flourished. Its former Serb and Croat readers have fled town. There are now as many copies sold in Germany, among former citizens, as in Sarajevo.

The goings have changed the character of the place, but the comings have also made their mark. Newcomers make up a quarter of the capital's population. Wrenched from villages by ethnic cleansing, these new faces, like the old ones reappearing after several years abroad, are victims of subtle kinds of segregation from "real Sarajevans".

Perceived as "peasants", the villagers are finding it hard to fit in. Their hold on housing, primarily in suburbs vacated by departing Serbs, is precarious and subject to political whims. "People from Srebrenica have no habit of dealing with a town," explains Pierre Krahenbuhl, deputy head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation. Heroic survivors of the Srebrenica massacre, they are still struggling to find an urban identity.

When newcomers trek down from the suburban hills to the centre and sit in cafes, not much distinguishes them from other Sarajevans, demobilised and unemployed, sipping inexpensive espressos.

"They try really hard to copy us," laughs Brano Jakubovic, an architecture student and radio disc jockey, after acknowledging that he hardly knows any newcomers - the two groups mostly ignore each other.

But trained eyes, such as those of Stela Pasic, a travel agent, pick out "the healthy village red cheeks", and note the mismatched clothing ("like red and pink"). They have different accents and are slow to catch the meaning of the urban slang that shuffles syllables front-to- back. "We often think to ourselves: why don't you go back to the village you came from?" she says.

More intricate and tense is the relationship between those who stuck it out through the war and those who sought safety abroad. Jakubovic had the opportunity to flee with his younger brother and mother, but they refused to leave without their father, who was fighting.

"Refugees are seen as people who betrayed their country, who led a good life and had enough money - while in fact many suffered and most of them were unhappy abroad," says Mehmed Halilovic, Liberation's editor-in-chief since 1994. "And refugees are bitter because they sent money to those who stayed, but received no thanks."

Many refugees are opting for permanent exile in other countries. Unlike an older cousin still living in Austria, Pasic, who took refuge in Switzerland where she attended an American school until January this year, is "very happy to be back". It's harder for men, she says. When her cousin visits his Sarajevan friends, "he never argues with them. He feels very inferior and intimidated. They can win all arguments by saying, you don't understand, you weren't here during the war."

Sarajevo may be a 90 per cent Moslem city, but ethnic cohesiveness now matters less than money. Poverty is not as apparent today as it was immediately after the siege, when old ladies could be seen rummaging through garbage cans for scraps of food, says Rory O'Sullivan, director of the World Bank's mission. But it is easy to be deceived by Sarajevans' remarkable knack for "presenting themselves well".

The bank estimates that 35 per cent of the population is "living under very difficult conditions", especially pensioners. And the unemployment rate is around 30 per cent, excluding those running small businesses in the grey economy - the official rate is 50 per cent.

Political connections hold considerable sway in an economy that has kept the red tape of communism. In a city with a shortage of capital, a flashy venture prompts rumours of corrupt politicians and illicit connections.

Armed personnel carriers and soldiers on foot belonging to the Nato-led Stabilisation Force lend the streets of Sarajevo a sense of security unusual in most big cities. This is good for business and good for peace. But the 10,000-strong presence of expatriates, civilian and military, adds a rung to the city's social ladder.

When it comes to making sustainable new beginnings, O'Sullivan finds it hard to tell who is better placed: people who have come home "with fresh ideas, marketing contacts, and sometimes capital, but are viewed as suspicious" or "the others, who stayed and have kept networks here".

Meanwhile, at the Internet Cafe, trendy young Sarajevans stream in at about 9pm, after the foreigners have polished off their happy-hour beers. Hundreds of small cafes elsewhere serve the passion for Turkish coffee. But when the caffeine charge wears off, the energy dissipates and harsh reality kicks in.

© Flore de Préneuf