A surreal game is played in now-quiet arena of war

March 21, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- If this war-torn city could be any more surreal, it was yesterday.

A soccer match was played as enemy troops looked down from the hills; paratroopers floated past sniper positions; and a British military band from Buckingham Palace marched through a battered stadium, wearing bright red uniforms and bearskin hats.

"It looks unreal to me," said Kemal Avdic, 14, one of 20,000 spectators -- the largest crowd to gather in the Bosnian capital since war broke out nearly two years ago.

"It's weird, isn't it?" commented a United Nations officer. "Very strange."

The game pitted Sarajevo's team against an international mix of U.N. troops.

Soccer fans likely had nervous thoughts while sitting in the Olympic Kosevo Stadium, which just weeks ago was far too dangerous to set foot in.

Next door to the devastated ice skating rink, also built for the 1984 Winter Olympics, the stadium and its soccer game resembled a scene from the movie "Apocalypse Now," when a soldier goes surfing while war rages.

But Sarajevo's cease-fire held throughout the game, and the wildest moments came only from a loud and boisterous group of young fans.

The match was the idea of British Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Rose, the U.N. force commander, and was organized by his aide, Capt. Nicholas Costello.

"The general said to me, 'Is there a football team in Sarajevo?' I said, 'Yes, there is,' " Captain Costello recalled. "That was three weeks ago, and here we are.

"It's slightly more than a match," he said. "It's quite a spectacular event."

Sir Michael said: "We see here today in the Kosevo football

stadium yet another step on the path toward normal, peaceful living. And we hope that what we achieve here will bring to this troubled but beautiful land of Bosnia-Herzegovina the normal life that everybody wants to lead."

North Atlantic Treaty Organization fighter jets flew overhead during the game, helicopters whirled, and U.N. soldiers stood atop the stadium's burned-out walls with automatic weapons in hand.

At one point, four paratroopers landed in the middle of the field as thousands cheered. One of them, a Norwegian, later said he never thought of the Serbian snipers who probably had him in their sights.

"I just thought of the skydive," he said. "Just the fun of it."

Big change in life

The event was a far cry from life in Sarajevo only weeks ago -- before a U.N. ultimatum and Russian diplomacy persuaded the Serbs to move their big guns from surrounding hills. Ever since, Bosnia's three-sided ethnic war has been relatively quiet, although scattered fighting still occurs among Croats, Serbs and Muslims.

The game "was a risk. Of course it's a risk," Captain Costello conceded.

Still, he expressed confidence that the cease-fire would hold -- at least until the match was over.

"I received a letter from [Bosnian Serb leader] Dr. [Radovan] Karadzic this morning, giving his assurances that nothing would happen," Captain Costello said. "He was very pleased it was going on. He said himself: The Sarajevo team should return to what it was."

Captain Costello's immediate fear was how poorly his fellow U.N. troops would fare against the Sarajevans, even though Sarejevo's 'B' team was playing.

The U.N. team, made up of British, Dutch, French, Russian, Ukrainian and Egyptian soldiers, lost 4-0.

Watching from the stands was Sarajevo sportswriter Irfan Kreho, who last covered a game on April 5, 1992, just as the war was starting. A Belgrade soccer team was to play a local team that day.

Sportswriter's experience

"The soccer players from Belgrade entered the stadium, asking to play," he recalled. But officials had called off the game an hour earlier when tensions started rising and scattered violence erupted.

When the players came out on to the field that day, "shooting started and bullets were flying everywhere," Mr. Kreho recalled. "The players ran off the field, packed their things and went away. They said, 'We won't have a soccer game. We'll have war.' I started to run, and that was the last game I've been to since."

After 30 years of covering sports, Mr. Kreho became a war reporter.

A few rows up from him sat Sister Angelina Ivkovic, who shrugged off the discovery of a spent bullet that lay at her feet.

She wore her nun's habit, adorned with an orange sticker that said, "Join the Coldstream Guards."

Coldstream Guards

The Coldstream Guards are one of the groups of British soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace. Famous for their tall, black bearskin caps and their stiff formality, the Guards' marching band flew to Sarajevo for just a day. With their red uniforms and precision marching, they made a surreal sight against the backdrop of bombed-out buildings, especially when they played Glenn Miller's 1940 favorite, "In the Mood."

The stand where the Olympic flame once burned still stands over the stadium, where opening ceremonies of the Sarajevo Winter Olympics were held. The stadium has seen a lot since then.

Zlatko Ilic, a Bosnian army soldier who fought nearby, said, "In the past two years, I've had to run through this stadium to get to the front line.

"I had some friends who were shot right there," he said, pointing down to the field. "Now we're here at a game. It's unbelievable. . . . I can't explain what I'm feeling."

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