Under Tito in the old Yugoslavia, the citizens of Sarajevo had to be very careful what they said. Now, freedom of speech is well-established, but some of the people we talked to long for the “good” old days.
Of course, we can’t claim wide experience: we speak no Serbo-Croatian, and the folks we have met on this trip were selected by the tour company, but our tour guides and dinner hosts in Sarajevo have been unequivocal in their criticism of the current government and a lack of optimism that things will get better without a major change of the constitution.
Most people in the U.S. remember Sarajevo for two things: the 1984 winter Olympics, which was a celebration of the city’s peaceful blending of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim heritage; and the 1990’s war when the former Yugoslavia split into six countries: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. That peaceful blend was mostly a facade.
On this tour, we are seeing Croatia, Montengro, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our principal tour guide is very careful not to pick sides in what was one of the most inhumane periods imaginable. There were some Croats who were plenty nasty, but when you look at the
list of those tried for war crimes in the Hague, the names – led by Slobodan Milosevic – are Serbian. Slovenia left the Yugoslav union first, without fighting because it was too far from Serbia for the Serbs to do much about it. Croatia’s split from Serbia was much longer and nastier, but there is little argument that Bosnia got the worst of it – particularly Sarajevo. The four-year siege of Sarajevo was longer than Stalingrad.
In the aftermath, Bosnia is one country split into Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim areas. It is much more
separated ethnically than before the war. Each group has its own president and its own members of the parliament. In a country of 4 million, they have Europe’s largest parliament because there are three of everything. The three presidents each preside for eight months, then rotate. And according to the folks we talked to, Bosnia will not be able to make any progress until that system changes, because the entrenched politician are doing fine. It’s just the people who are suffering. Bosnia is now the poorest country in Europe. The fighting is over, but issues remain unresolved.
As you walk around Sarejevo, you can see many buildings that are restored or under restoration. But many other still show the holes from four years of shelling. The war is a constant item of discussion. We had a dinner at the home of a teacher who maintained that times were
better under Tito’s communism. We have heard repeatedly that although they did not have the freedom to criticize the regime, they had jobs. Sarajevo was a major manufacturing center before the breakup of communist Yugoslavia, and now many of those plants are not functioning. Bosnia hardly is unique in the loss of manufacturing jobs, but it has not replaced them with other work like the more prosperous countries of the European Union. Young people get a free education but can’t find work; many move on to Northern Europe.
I don’t have evidence for this, but I have trouble believing that people were better off under Tito. I think there may be a nostalgia for a simpler time – certainly for a time before many people lost their homes and livelihoods. Our first tour guide, in Dubrovnik, was a 10-year-old in Mostar during the war. He was injured by a grenade, and his family lost their home but managed to survive. Our main tour guide – a small boy in Montenegro at the time – didn’t see or hear from his father for six months because he was serving in the Yugoslav army. There seem to be plenty of stories like this.
Sarajevo has beautiful old buildings that look like an Austria-Hungarian capital, but rows of ugly, Soviet-style, concrete apartment buildings and plenty of evidence of the war with shelled and damaged structures yet to be repaired. It is an amazing place to visit.