Letter from Sarajevo

I wrote this for the Irish Times a million years ago. The day it was published I was in Bermuda and I ran out and drank a bellyfull of Rum Swizzle, which cost immeasurably more than the fee I got for the piece. The glamour. Jesus.

LETTER FROM SARAJEVO

It’s the busiest Wednesday in a long time at Le Passage bar in downtown Sarajevo. Tiki, the ever-smiling proprietor, has decided to sell his beer at half price for the week, “It’s my little gift back to the people,” he says. The people while appreciative of his kindness are finding his offer to be a bit of a curate’s egg. “He’s making it very difficult for any of us to do any work these days,” says Darije a thirty-two year old Sarajevan and one of the new breed of entrepreneurs helping to steer Bosnia I Herzegovina back into economic contention with the rest of Europe. “Well anyway,” he says and signals for another round of Sarajevsko, “I’ll just have to work twice as hard next week and hope Tiki doesn’t plan any more drink promotions for a while.”

It’s already very hot in Sarajevo and the tourists have started arriving. From early morning, when the Mullahs’ chants ring out through the city, they are everywhere. Strolling through the small cobbled lanes of the Turkish Quarter, taking photos of the city markets and gardens or milling around the tourist office on Zelenih Beretki inquiring about the latest festivals and events and what Sarajevo has to offer besides city tours of the hot-spots from the war.

This is where Darije and his friends come in. For the past three years they’ve been mapping the countryside around Sarajevo and making trails for mountain bike tours. “The mountains around Sarajevo have some of the most beautiful and untouched areas in the whole of Europe,” says Darije, “During the war we were held siege by snipers and mortars for four years. You don’t know how good it is to wake up any day and be able to go where you want without restrictions.”

Darije might like to think he can go where he wants but the truth of the matter is that the city is still to a certain extent under siege. As close as half a kilometre from the city centre lie areas contaminated with unexploded ordnance devices and mines. Ten years after the Serbian army retreated and Sarajevo was liberated, the extent of the country’s contamination is still not fully known. BHMAC, the Bosnian authority responsible for the demining of the country, have recorded 18,000 mine fields in Bosnia I Herzegovina but suspect there to be another 30,000 unrecorded mine fields in the mountains, valleys and remote corners of the country.

The day before a farmer near Tuzla was killed when he detonated a “bouncing betty” mine. He was chopping wood at the time when the tree he was cutting landed in the mine’s path. The most frustrating thing for BHMAC is that this minefield was already known and marked with red tape. But the risk, according to the farmer, was small compared to the money he’d make at the lumberyard.

But landmine deaths have become rare in Bosnia I Herzegovina and back in Tiki’s bar in Sarajevo they are the last things on any one’s mind. The city’s busy. There are big crowds of teenagers, all decked out in their luminous summer gear, walking in front of the small terrace. One of them, a round kid in a yellow t-shirt that makes him look like a fat Tour De France winner passes us for the third time. “Do they just go round all night in circles?” I ask in my role as ignorant tourist. “It’s a Balkan thing you wouldn’t understand,” says Darije, “you northern types always have to go from A to B, we like to include C, D and even E.”

Like most young Sarajevans, Darije has dreams of leaving the country and working abroad, but unlike the majority he also sees a future for himself in Bosnia, “It’s like the poor man’s Switzerland man,” he says, “all we need to do is harness the potential of our wonderful countryside and more and more tourists will come”

One side effect of the heavy mining is that Bosnia’s countryside has been left largely untouched and undeveloped for over ten years. Wolves and bears have returned to the mountains and wild meadows and pastures have replaced areas that were traditionally used by farmers.

It’s getting on for midnight and Darije finally succumbs to the law of diminishing marginal returns and turns down my offer of, “one for the ditch” He gets to his feet slowly, “We’re mapping a fifteen kilometre trail between here and Mostar if you’re free tomorrow?” he says.

“Is that not a bit close to the old battle lines?” I say, “The whole area will be covered in mines” He rolls his eyes to say, for all the time you’ve been here you still haven’t learnt anything have you.

“A Croatian friend of mine is coming out with us,” he says. I look confused. “He laid the mines in the first place, so he’ll be able to show us where not to put our feet”

And then he walks away into the warm Sarajevan evening, stumbling, fumbling for cigarettes and finally disappearing from view, the new wave of legitimate Sarajevan businessmen and the future of Bosnia I Herzegovina.

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