Friday, 31 October 2008

31 October 2008

I’ve just spent a few days in Sarajevo, talking to Bosnian radio broadcasters about how they do their job and how I do mine.

You probably remember reading about Sarajevo: for three long years in the early 1990s, it was pretty much constantly in the headlines. Bosnia was engulfed in a vicious civil war, part of the deadly conflagration that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia. For most of that time, Sarajevo was under siege, bombarded by artillery and mortar shells fired by Serb gunners in the hills that surround the city.

These days, many of Sarajevo’s physical scars have healed. In the 12 years since I was last there, in the aftermath of the war, the churches and mosques have been rebuilt, and the red tiled roofs on the private houses have all been repaired. Now, new steel and glass office blocks line the road from the airport and give parts of this most charming of ancient European capitals the look almost of a Kuwait or a Dubai.

But I don’t want to give you the impression that this is now a normal, functioning state. Bosnia is still a nation divided, both emotionally and politically. The Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks as they are now known) are in a sort-of partnership with the Bosnian Croats, in what they call the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Serbs have their own “entity”, the Republika Srpska, which is in theory part of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but which to all intents and purposes runs its own affairs.

So if you were confused during the Bosnian war, I’m afraid you’d still be confused now. “This is a very strange place,” said one man I met. “The Bosnian Croats want to be part of Croatia; the Bosnian Serbs want to be part of Serbia. Only the Bosniaks are happy to be Bosnian.” It’s not exactly a recipe for the building of a successful nation.

But it doesn’t need an enormous leap of the imagination to see Sarajevo as a flourishing European tourist destination, a Balkan answer to Prague or Vienna. It has a unique charm, built partly on the ancient wooden structures in the old town, and partly on its location, surrounded by high wooded mountains every bit as scenic as the Austrian Tyrol. (Tourists of a historic bent can of course stand on the very spot where Archduke Ferdinand was shot in June 1914, which became the spark that ignited the First World War.)

Sarajevo hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, and up in the mountains there are ski runs and hotels galore, ready and waiting to be used. In the city itself, there is a national museum, an ancient synagogue and one of the world’s most priceless historic Jewish manuscripts. There are mosques, Serbian Orthodox churches and history at every street corner.

The only thing wrong is the politics. Paddy Ashdown, who was the international community’s most senior representative in Bosnia between 2002 and 2006, wrote the other day, together with the former US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was one of the main architects of the peace agreement which ended the Bosnian war in 1995: “It’s time to pay attention to Bosnia again, if we don’t want things to get very nasty quickly. By now, we should all know the price of that.”

Indeed, we should. Maybe the European Union and the new US president should add Bosnia to the “to do” list.

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