Last month I found myself in Sarajevo on the day that UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan greeted the new-born baby hailed as the six billionth inhabitant of our planet. I had visited the city many times before, as a UN peace-keeping official during the traumatic years, 1991-96. The following is my reaction to this most recent visit. Its theme, I felt, could best be expressed in a prose poem.
I remember your city before you were born. Winter nineteen ninety-one, the skies grey, the air tense with rumours of war, the whiff of cordite floating in from Croatian battlefronts. A brief ray of hope through the clouds, the Sarajevo Accords of New Year’s nineteen ninety-two, sealing (ah, foolish hope) yet another peace between Serbs and Croats. That hope shattered in the gunfire of that cruellest April, scattering the habitues of the side- walk cafes to the bleeding barricades, the dull thud of artillery shells slamming into your city from the ring of hills surrounding your parents. Sarajevo, capital of Europe.
I remember your city before you were born. The siege. The plangent whine of the sniper’s random bullet penetrating the heart, the mind, of Sarajevo. Shell-shock. Nineteen ninety-two and three, mobilisation, the tramp of mud-caked boots through the streets of your Olympic city. January nine- teen ninety-four, the indelible screams of mothers at the marketplace, dismembered limbs filling their shopping baskets at Markale. Sarajevo, city of the exclusion zone, filling with refugees, spies, advisers, smugglers, United Nations peace-keepers sent in to keep a peace no one could make. Sarajevo, capital of Europe.
I remember your city before you were born. The tunnel under the airport, fleeing women irradiated by the searchlights as they tried to cross the runway, blood irrigating the vegetable gar- dens of Dobrinje. Sarajevo, a city pockmarked by hate, scarred by the tracks of armoured personnel carriers, divided by barriers of blood.
I remember flying in over destroyed buildings, putting on my blue helmet and ill-fitting Kevlar flak jacket, stepping off the musty UNPROFOR Yak-40 and walking across the tarmac, an armoured fire truck driving slowly between us and the silent snipers. Your refugee parents knew no such security in Sarajevo. Sarajevo, capital of Europe.
I remember your city before you were born. Nineteen ninety-five, the smoke mushrooming over the ammunition dump in Pale, the air carrying haunting echoes of the massacres at Srebrenica, another blot on the stained conscience of what we naively called the international community. The thumps of the guns of the Rapid Reaction Force, reacting at last to the shelling of Sarajevo. Thick clouds of aircraft overhead, dropping destruction on your besiegers. And with it, hope. Till the air cleared, and peace came at last to what would become your home. Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia.