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Bosnia: Sarajevo -- Reconstruction Begins, But Will Peace Last?

  • Kitty McKinsey

Sarajevo, 17 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Semso Turkic rushes around his glass-cutting plant showing off his large selection. Here's double-thickness thermal glass imported from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Italy. Over there is delicate lilac and gold textured cathedral glass.

Turkic cheerfully admits to being one of the busiest men in Sarajevo. As the owner of the city's largest glass company, Interglass, he's largely responsible for a number of sparkling new windows in the Bosnian capital's homes and offices.

Nearly four years of Serb shelling destroyed an estimated 90 percent of the glass in the windows of Sarajevo buildings. With peace now nearly a year old -- at least on paper -- the new glass going back into windows is one of the most visible signs of the reconstruction of Bosnia that's just getting underway.

Turkic remained in business throughout the war, installing donated glass in hospitals and the building occupied by the city's presidency. Virtually every other window in the city was covered by plastic sheeting donated by the UNHCR (UN High Commissioner for Refugees). Turkic, who now employees 70 people to keep up with all the work, says he gets great satisfaction from bringing warmth back into homes, particularly of old people who often cry in gratitude at getting glass back in their windows. He often puts it in for free.

All over Sarajevo are signs that life is returning to normal. Pedestrians no longer sprint across intersections to avoid snipers' bullets. In fact, the biggest hazard to health these days is traffic accidents. Drivers seem to have forgotten how to drive cars that were put away for nearly four years and pedestrians have forgotten that there might be vehicles on the long-empty streets.

Goats no longer graze on the verges of the city's main street. People lucky enough to own homes have planted their backyards with grass this year, not vegetables any more. Two tram lines are running, as are several bus lines. Garbage is no longer being dumped in stinking mounds on city street corners, but is being collected from brand-new dumpsters.

Workers have begun cleaning up the once-graceful National Library which dates from the times of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and was destroyed by fire after being hit by a shell fired by the Serbs besieging the city from the surrounding mountains.

As Gorana Kusan, an architect and urban planner involved in the city's reconstruction, puts it: "It is very hard in this moment to have a very deep reconstruction. We are just taking the first steps."

Even so, as a Western diplomat puts it, this is "a Potemkin City -- it seems more normal than it actually is." For all Sarajevans, the question hanging over all their reconstruction activities is: Will this peace last?

And the usual answer to that is: as long as international peace-keeping troops stay in the country. Although the NATO-led force known as IFOR is scheduled to begin departing by December, world leaders are now proposing that some type of smaller international force stay in Bosnia-Herzegovina for at least two more years. Ask Sarajevans how long IFOR should stay and the answers range from "as long as possible" to "1,000 years."

A Muslim taxi driver, who didn't want to give his name, summed up the feeling of many Sarajevans this way: "Peace will last as long as IFOR and the international community keep the pressure on all three sides."

Senad Pecanin, editor of the weekly magazine Dani (Days) is even more blunt: "At the moment international forces leave, we can expect a new war."

One of the cornerstones of the new peace is a balance of arms between the Bosnian Serbs on one side and the Muslim-Croat federation on the other. This is being achieved by a U.S.-sponsored Equip and Train program for Bosnian government forces that is designed to prevent a new outbreak of war by evening the odds. It's a move that inspires hope in many Sarajevans.

Dzevad Sabanagic is far from being a military man -- he's a violinist and a composer. Still, he says: "What gives me confidence that we will have peace is this balance of arms that we are going to get and which we did not have so far."

One thing is clear -- Sarajevans can't contemplate a return to the 43-month strangulation of the city in which one in every 10 citizens was injured. Mevlida Ovuka, a psychologist who counsels Sarajevans with problems resulting from the war, says all her patients tell her the same thing: "We can't endure war again. We can't go through that again."