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Bosnia: The Sarajevo Scene--Reporter's Notebook

Sarajevo, 16 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A little more than one year ago after Bosnia-Herzegovina's first post-war national elections, Sarajevo strikes me as a very different place than the one I visited in 1996...starting with the manner in which I arrived in the city.

Last year, transport was still by military shuttle and the airport was under heavy NATO/SFOR guard, as it was during the days under siege. Now, commercial airlines grace the runway, like the one that flew me into Sarajevo directly from Vienna.

On the ride in from the airport, the earliest and most striking public building one passes is the former headquarters of Bosnia's oldest and best known newspaper, "Oslobodenje." The building was all but completely destroyed during the early days of the war, but the newspaper continued to appear every day and has since received numerous accolades and awards for that accomplishment.

I must admit my heart sank when I saw the building was still in the same haunting and dilapidated form I remembered from one year earlier. When I brought this up later to a local Bosnian woman, she said it was still being discussed whether or not to leave it standing in its present state as a reminder and a memorial to the ravages of war. She said a similar suggestion had been made with regard to the world-famous national library, but that the public cry for reconstruction had been far greater.

From the airport, one quickly arrives in the downtown area to streets full and festive, shop windows brimming -- some with western goods -- and scores of new restaurants and taverns. One local escorted me with great pride to Sarajevo's new copy-cat fast food restaurant, much like McDonalds, and said the city had never seen anything like it. Even the haven for the international press corps, the Holiday Inn Hotel, had a new look. Gone were the pock-marks and scars of repeated shelling. In their place stands a fresh paint job of brown and what can only be described as screaming yellow.

Trams run full and frequently along what has come to be referred to as "sniper's alley." In the nearby hills above, young trees struggle to grow and replace those felled during the war for firewood.

If a city can be judged by its cultural offerings, then Sarajevo is back in full swing. Posters downtown advertising an upcoming rock concert appeal to the young, while others court the artsy or intellectual with offerings of an international film festival, an art exhibit by Annie Liebowitz, or a Malaysian trade fair. On my last night in town, I was taken to the opening of a new art gallery in the old Turkish marketplace, housed in the former home of a celebrated Bosnian poet, Mak Dizdar. The exhibit of black-and-white photos of the war has just returned from an exhaustive tour of major European capitals. The accompanying books on display will be shown at Frankfurt's upcoming international book fair.

It did strike me as odd, however, that in my nearly one week here I saw but only a handful of election posters -- almost all of which were for the ruling Muslim SDA party of Bosnian-Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic. Last year, the city was awash with posters of competing messages.

It was also three days before I saw or heard any NATO/SFOR military helicopters running reconnaissance flights. Last year, I remember feeling as if the city was still very much under siege, as tanks rumbled through the streets below, accompanied by choppers overhead.

Overall, it appeared almost as if the city and its people had decided to breathe a sigh of relief and to take those first hard steps toward normalization and reconstruction. True, many buildings, including the former parliament and offices housing the Executive Council, still stand bare, with electrical wires dangling dangerously. And I saw my fair share of apartment blocks still boasting temporary plastic sheeting for windows, care of the local UNHCR.

At the same time, banks are opening, travel offices promote leisure trips to Croatia, and there is a very small, but obvious presence of foreign tourists, outside the very large and imposing presence of the international community.

But perhaps the single most striking personal image I can remember in these six days of covering Bosnia's municipal elections, which are supposed to return power to the people at a more "grass-roots" level, is that of a young boy riding his new, child-sized plastic car around the old bread line-water depot in Markale, Sarajevo's old market place. It was a normal enough image for say a Seattle, Sintra, or Stockholm. But this innocent and seemingly unimportant event struck me as truly extraordinary for Sarajevo, especially when one remembers the world-wide television footage of massacres and sniping in this same locale only a little more than two years ago today.