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Bosnia: Sarajevo's Spirit Of Ethnic Harmony Tarnished

  • Kitty McKinsey

Sarajevo, 12 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- On a Sunday morning, the rich bass voice of the Serbian Orthodox priest fills the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in the center of Old Sarajevo. As they did throughout the war, a handful of elderly Orthodox Christian Serbs gather for the daily service.

In April, 1992, when extreme nationalist Serbs attacked the Bosnian capital at the start of the war, well over 100,000 ethnic Serbs -- longtime residents -- fled the city. But another 25,000 to 30,000 remained behind to share with the city's Muslims, Croats and Jews what turned into a 43-month-long siege and artillery bombardment by the encircling Serb nationalists. As a Sarajevo businesswoman put it, "shells did not choose whether a person was a Serb or a Muslim."

Although many Sarajevan Serbs say they felt personal guilt because of the torture their fellow Serbs were inflicting on the Bosnian capital, they say they never experienced any reproaches from members of other ethnic groups who had lived together for centuries in a city that was a model of religious and ethnic harmony.

Before the war, Muslims made up 50 percent of the city's population and Serbs were second with about 30 percent. Just over six percent were ethnic Croats, while 14 percent were from other groups, including a large percentage of children of mixed marriages who called themselves Yugoslavs.

Krstan Bijeljac, the 80-year-old chief Serbian Orthodox priest of Sarajevo, says that in fact the wartime suffering brought members of different ethnic groups and religions in Sarajevo closer together.

"I go to see Catholic priests, to the Jewish community, to see the mufti (Muslim religious leader), all my colleagues whom I knew for 30 or 40 years. We clergymen live even more intimately together than we used to because of all the hardships we have gone through together," he said.

Sarajevo's famous spirit of ethnic and religious tolerance remains alive in the longtime residents, but even Bijeljac admits that a severe wartime change in the ethnic composition of the city has put that spirit under threat.

By one estimate, 300,000 of the people who contributed most to the city's diversity -- not only the ethnic Serbs, but also many of the city's brightest, best-educated young secular Muslims -- left the city during the war. At the same time, an estimated 200,000 village Muslims flooded into the city after the Serbs drove them from their homes in Eastern Bosnia, through a campaign of rape, murder, torture and arson which the Serbs themselves called "ethnic cleansing."

Some longtime Sarajevo residents view these refugees with suspicious and resentment. Even the most charitable say these people will need time to adjust to city life. The newcomers, even more than lifelong Sarajevans, have reasons to hate Serbs, without distinction between those who persecuted them and those who suffered in Sarajevo. As Senad Pecanin, editor of the weekly magazine "Dani" (Days) puts it, the newcomers "cannot understand that Serbs who were original Sarajevans are not guilty for anything the Serbs did on the other side."

Mevlida Ovuka, a 52-year-old Muslim woman married to a Serb -- who together share their apartment with an ethnic Croat refugee -- says the change in Sarajevo has been, as she put it, "extreme."

"We all know Sarajevo has changed for the worse," she said.

Nijaz Kostovic, a 63-year-old Muslim architect who has lived in Sarajevo all his life, sums up the change in words of disgust.

"What was the pearl of Sarajevo was its multicultural nature, but now the peasant element has taken everything in its hands," he said. He spits out the word "peasant" as a terrible pejorative.

Jovo Jovanovic, a 56-year-old Serb married to a Muslim who stayed in Sarajevo throughout the war, says "there are still a lot of tolerant people, but the division along ethnic lines is apparent and inevitable" after everything that happened.

"There are three ethnic parties, three ethnic armies, three ethnic police forces, three ethnic ideologies and three ethnic territories, and it will be very difficult to overcome these divisions," he said.

Still, as Bosnia attempts to heal the deep divisions of war, many see Sarajevo as a shining beacon for the rest of the country, demonstrating that even after the horrors of ethnic cleansing, Muslims, Croats and Serbs can live together in the future. Along with Tuzla, an industrial city in northeastern Bosnia where nationalism never triumphed, Sarajevans say their city can show the way to reconciliation.

"Sarajevo has changed the structure of its population, but not its ideas," maintains Stjepan Kljuic, a member of the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina who happens to be an ethnic Croat. "It is very important to point out that the Muslim nation did not accept revenge as a method of behavior."

As Mevlida Ovuka, the Muslim woman married to a Serb, sums it up: "Sarajevo is not what it once was, but it is still a multicultural city, much more so than most other places in Bosnia."