Surrounded by past, Sarajevans look to future

Studying in the former Yugoslavia, it is hard not to see history everywhere. The place that once was a country has played a pivotal role in world politics for over a century. In Sarajevo, the situation is no different.

There is no major monument on the spot where Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. An inscription on a building is the only reminder of the event that pulled the world into war and put Bosnia's small capital on the map. But, like everything in the former Yugoslavia, from street names to borders, the monument (or lack thereof) has changed much over the past 100 years.

After the Austrians responded to the assassination with major military engagement, the authorities put up a massive monument to the deceased archduke and his wife. This monument would last only as long as the Austrian empire, imploding in the aftermath of World War I. The Serb-dominated Kingdom of Yugoslavia replaced the monument with an equally massive memorial to Princip, celebrated as a hero of Serbian nationalism. When Nazi Germany captured Sarajevo in April of 1941, it put up another monument to the archduke, redefined in Nazi mythos as a man after Hitler's own heart. When Tito's Communist Partisans liberated the city four years later, a new memorial to Princip was built, this time as a hero of the proletarian struggle against Western imperialism. And when Sarajevo built itself out of the ashes of the former Yugoslavia in 1996, all that was left was a small inscription on a building that stated the facts, without calling anyone a hero.

I think in Sarajevo people are tired of anything besides the facts. The citizens of this city have been held hostage by ideology for 100 years. But despite everything that has happened to this city, Sarajevans have a self-effacing sense of humor about their lives. As an American student studying here, it is often hard to understand how Sarajevans can find so much humor in what happened to them during the war.

The city of Sarajevo was shelled by Serbian forces from April 1992 until February 1996, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. More than 11,000 Sarajevans died during the shelling. With no connection to the outside world and with the main cemetery being too close to the Serbian artillery fortifications, the dead were buried in city parks, private gardens and soccer stadiums. Almost 800 people that were trying to smuggle food into the city across the runway of the Sarajevo Airport where the United Nations had set up a humanitarian aid center were shot by snipers.

A war correspondent called Sarajevo the world's largest concentration camp during the shelling. I was told a joke today that, "at least in Auschwitz, they had working gas lines." Without electricity, gas or much else for the four years of shelling, Sarajevans built a tunnel underneath the U.N. base at the airport. It was a lifeline, the only connection to the outside world. And the U.N. sat on top of it, unwilling to help either side and sending those that tried to escape from the city back inside.

More than 10 years after the Dayton Peace Accords ended direct conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is easier to understand the role of the international community from a more objective viewpoint. Dayton ensured the creation of a two-entity state: Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity of Bosnia, ideology is still enchanting to many. Nationalist and hard-line politicians continue to do well in elections, despite chiding from international observers. But the very fact that Republika Srpska exists almost legitimizes the ideology of these hard-line nationalists, the very ideology that tore Bosnia apart during the 1990s. In creating a two-entity state structure, the international community said that the aggressors were in the right.

The monument troubles are a telling example of how Sarajevo's siege may have been for well over four years. Under the thumb of one ideological trend or another for a century, Sarajevo's citizens are now free to define their own truths and re-examine their history. Bosnia will probably switch monuments a few more times as it reaches the end of Dayton's annexes but the appetite for truth and for a new future is here.

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