Seeking another moment in time

Sun Journal

Sarajevo: The war-ravaged Bosnian city, recalling the glory that came with the 1984 Winter Olympics, wants the games to return in 2010.

August 23, 1999|By Rosemary Armao | Rosemary Armao,SUN STAFF

SARAJEVO -- In a city where bad memories are no further away than the gravestones in the parks and red "Sarajevo Roses" mark where sniper bullets dropped people to the sidewalks, residents remember the 1984 Winter Olympics as a wondrous period of festivity and peace.

They remember it as a time when the world's spotlight trained on Yugoslavia for reasons that had nothing to do with ethnic hatred or war.

They want to bring back the games.

Unlikely as that might seem, former Yugoslav President Bogic Bogicevic heads a planning committee writing a proposal to the International Olympic Committee to bring the winter 2010 games to this central Bosnian city of 400,000.

This spring, the city was awash in sky blue posters stamped with the shiny Olympic rings.

"Sarajevo, Olympic City Forever," proclaimed signs plastered on streetlights and the ubiquitous scaffolding around shelled-out buildings. "15" -- the number of years since 1984 -- declared billboards and the electronic signboard over the main drag named Marsala Tito.

Their campaign to hold the Olympics again is no joke, though Sarajevans, renowned for their humor in the face of adversity, do tell a joke about an ace-in-the-hole they could play over richer, better-equipped competitors such as Calgary and Muju, a South Korean resort.

"It would be good for the games and the Olympic officials," says Jasmin Maricic, political editor of the newspaper Vecernje Novine. "You know about that scandal? They take bribes to give the games? Well, everybody knows Sarajevo don't have nothing for no one."

In truth, many Sarajevans believe few places in the world provide so fitting a setting for the international competition as their damaged city.

No matter, they argue, that the brutal Serb onslaught on Sarajevo from 1992 to 1995 flattened the stadium that housed the magnificent opening ceremonies of the 1984 games. Or that city dwellers dug up the Olympic soccer field outside the stadium to bury their dead. Or that the world-class Nordic ski center atop Mount Igman, which the Serbs converted into a military installation, is blackened and shell-scarred.

While it no longer has all the structures to put on the games, what other city speaks so eloquently about the consequences of multinational discord? About courage? The indomitable human spirit the games are supposed to showcase?

The city is filled with inspirations.

On the road from the airport into the old Turkish core of the city -- Sniper's Alley during the Bosnian War -- stand the blasted remains of the Oslobodenja newspaper building. Throughout ruinous bombardment, the newspaper came out every day. This is one building that won't be reconstructed; it has turned into a monument to the city's resilience.

Shopkeepers in Bascarsije have made shells and cartridges collected from the siege as hot a souvenir moneymaker as their traditional hand-loomed Bosnian rugs and Turkish coffee sets. They've crafted the weaponry rained down on them into vases, stamped with elaborate designs of mosques and roses or painted black and etched with poplar trees and minarets.

Amer Mehicevic, a Muslim driver for the International Research and Exchange Board, an American nonprofit agency, takes tourists who ask about the war to the cliffs that surround his hometown. Rusted jeeps are heaped here and there; clumps of wire and yellow tape mark places where the mines have not yet been removed.

If you picture these heights where the Serbs set up their artillery as the rim of a bowl, Sarajevo sits directly at the bottom of the bowl. From this rim, the invaders blew up the elegant Austro-Hungarian Empire-era post office, burned up the priceless historical treasures of the National Archives and fired on hospital staffs, market shoppers, burial parties.

Sarajevans lived in basements, cut down trees along boulevards and in parks for firewood, and disposed of bodies in back yards.

"The Serbs," Mehicevic says, looking down, "they have very good view of Sarajevo."

Mehicevic quit school when the Serbs swooped in on his hometown to become a runner for the Bosnian army. Everywhere he drives in the city, old comrades in arms embrace and kiss him on both cheeks.

If anything competes with their painfully plain love for the city they protected, it might be sports. Televised soccer matches shut down the city; Mehicevic does karate daily; and in a city that nearly starved, young athletes now worry they "must to lose the kilos" to stay in shape.

So, as vivid as his memories of war, Mehicevic recalls the winter when he was 7 and the Olympics came.

"Oh, yes, of course I remember," he says with the same wide grin many Sarajevans have when asked about that glorious event.

Even in 1984, small, remote Sarajevo was an unorthodox choice as an Olympic host. But the games were a triumph, still remembered for the erotic ice dancing of Torvill and Dean, Katarina Witt's gold-medal skating and the 90-minute opening ceremony with 1,500 marching athletes from 49 countries, then a record.

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