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Bosnia's 25 Years Of Going Downhill

The opening ceremony of the 1984 Winter Games, when optimism and patriotism ruled
The opening ceremony of the 1984 Winter Games, when optimism and patriotism ruled
I remember one hot day in June 1983 when the Workers' Assembly of the News Department of Sarajevo State Television held an extraordinary session. Some representatives of the Communist authorities came to tell us that we should offer to "donate" a month's salary to support the upcoming XIV Winter Olympic Games. Apparently, the state Olympic Committee was running short of cash.

The arrogant demeanor of the officials rubbed me the wrong way, so I voted against the proposal. But patriotism was running high back then, and I was the only dissenter. Everyone else "volunteered."

When the games opened in February 1984, I regretted my vote. Like everyone else in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I was proud to host the games and proud that they were so well organized. Forty-nine national teams participated, bringing 1,300 athletes to the city. For one month, little Sarajevo was the center of the world.

Celebrities came to town. Everyone was optimistic, looking forward to a bright future of peace and prosperity. We joked about the U.S. team and how they'd brought everything with them -- right down to toilet paper.

The only enemy was the weather. The mountains were bare until the very last minute, with snow beginning to fall literally on the day the games opened.

After that, anything was possible.

Now, exactly 25 years later, almost nothing remains from those days. Hope left Bosnia years ago and shows no sign of returning. Our seemingly bright future was darkened by war.

The city is now known around the world not as the home of a successful Olympiad but as the scene of atrocities and a ruthless siege by Serbian forces. Even the mountains around the city, the site of many Olympic events, are now divided along ethnic lines -- Muslims ski on Bjelasnica and Igman, while Bosnian Serbs prefer Jahorina, and Bosnian Croats are developing Kupres.

A Long Way Down

In 1984, Bosnians could visit European countries without visas. Today, they need documents to go anywhere. Twenty-five years ago we were selling bubble gum, pantyhose, and blue jeans to all the citizens of Eastern Europe. Today, they are all citizens of the European Union, and Bosnia is trying to catch the last train.

Back then, Yugoslavia was 20 years ahead of the rest of Eastern Europe in terms of development, and now Bosnia is 20 years behind. That's a long way to fall in just 25 years.

Even the patriotism that once united everyone in the country has been split into three petty ethnic patriotisms. The country's leaders are obsessed with drawing more and more dividing lines across the country. Bosnia is practically a failed state.

Back in 1984, there was a widely repeated story of a restaurant where a visiting American actor named Kirk Douglas had dined. Some enterprising journalist revealed that the owner had charged Douglas several times more than he should have for the meal. The whole city was outraged. How could we cheat Kirk Douglas? What would the world think of us? Public outrage eventually forced the restaurant out of business.

But today such cheating is a way of life in a broken country where everyone is scraping and scheming to survive. And nobody cares.

A few years ago, a small group of local diehards started promoting the idea that Sarajevo should bid to host the 2010 Winter Games. Such an event would help the country heal and rejoin the international community, they argued.

The idea went nowhere. Even Sarajevo Mayor Alija Behmen concedes the city is simply not up to anything nearly so ambitious now. "There are lots of ideas," he told RFE/RL wistfully. But there is no unified state to support them.

Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

Sarejevo's Brightest Days

Sarajevo's Brightest Days

For a fleeting moment 25 years ago, the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo transformed the city into the international sporting capital of the world. Just a few years later, the region would be engulfed in war and Sarajevo would never be the same. Video courtesy of TV Liberty. Play