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Memories Of U2 Concert In Sarajevo Fuel Nostalgia Two Decades Later

U2 emerges from a giant capsule at their performance in Sarajevo on September 23, 1997.

Less than two years following the end of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in September 1997, the Irish rock band U2 staged a mega-concert in Sarajevo. For many residents of the Bosnian capital it was the first real sign that peace had come. Although Sarajevo airport was still closed on weekends for major repairs, it reopened briefly on the Sunday before the concert to accommodate the plane carrying U2's equipment. The railways were not fully functional yet, but as a result of popular pressure a train from the divided city of Mostar made it to Sarajevo packed with young people -- Muslims and Croats who had been facing off against one another in violent internecine conflict for three years (1992-95). At least six busloads of U2 fans came from Banja Luka, the capital of the Serb Republic, crossing another divide.

Ticket prices, at about $12, were significantly lower than for U2's other tour dates to account for the beleaguered state of the country.

Around 45,000 packed the Kosevo Olympic Stadium for the Tuesday show -- at least 5,000 of whom were NATO peacekeeping troops. Asked whether they were concerned that fighting would break out while the peacekeepers were reveling, a group of British soldiers cheerfully reassured an AP reporter: "This is the safest place in Bosnia tonight."

During the concert, as Bono's voice faltered at one point, the audience joined in with so much force that the loudspeakers were overwhelmed. Bono urged them on in their own language: "Sing in Sarajevo," he told the crowd -- "It's a present from you to us."

"It was one of the toughest and one of the sweetest nights of my life, that's for sure," Bono later told Bosnian Television.

He added that if rock and roll could be summed up in one word, it would be "liberation."

"Music doesn't know political divides and music has a joy that ignores borders and even defies borders," he said. "This is what we've always stood for as a group."

Twenty years later, memories of U2's legendary concert are still powerful.

While the Bosnian war was still going on, Bono raised the spirits of besieged Sarajevo residents with the song Miss Sarajevo, dedicated to them. On the 20th anniversary of the September 23 concert, he renamed it Miss Syria -- keeping up the band's commitment to global peace and human rights.

U2 lead singer Bono (file photo)
U2 lead singer Bono (file photo)

For one magical evening in 1997, the Sarajevo concert brought together a bitterly divided country, with youth from all corners of Bosnia and every ethnic group mingling inside a stadium that had itself been damaged by shelling -- 450 workers performed the necessary repairs on the eve of the concert.

"[U2 did in one night] what international organizations couldn't do in years," one of the concert's local promoters, student Asja Hafner, told reporters at the time. She was part of the Bosnian PR team for U2's PopMart Tour -- Obala Art Centar was in charge of organizing the concert.

Twenty years later, Asja is far less optimistic.

"Looking back and compared to today, Sarajevo has both betrayed its own legacy and failed its citizens -- which is not only our misfortune but also a loss for Europe and the world at large," Asja said in a recent interview. "The city no longer carries that symbolism that brought U2 here two decades ago. That's not an easy admission to make for someone who was a part of the team that worked so hard for two, three months to make the U2 concert happen. Sarajevo endured war and a siege, but it could not deal with the aftermath, and has succumbed to stifling conformism and to nationalism."

Ferida Durakovic, a prominent Bosnian writer, also feels a sense of defeat, but has not given up hope.

"My friends, all those who shared my political views, believed that Bosnia would live that beautiful dream of a multiethnic society," she explained to RFE/RL's Sarajevo bureau. "Of course, we have been defeated, but I think that it's better to admit defeat with dignity and continue to have faith in the possibility of a better future than to join those [political] forces that are shredding the delicate multiethnic fabric."

In another sign of the erosion of the spirit of tolerance and multiculturalism that pulsated from U2's stage 20 years ago, officials of a Sarajevo municipality have rejected a proposal to name a sports arena after Goran Cengic.

Cengic was a celebrated team handball player who had played for clubs in both Bosnia and Serbia, as well as representing Yugoslavia on numerous occasions. The part of the city he lived in, Grbavica, was under Serb occupation during the war, and in 1992 he tried to intervene when armed men came for his Muslim neighbor, Husnija Cerimagic. They were both killed by "Batko," a notorious war criminal who was sentenced to 45 years in prison in 2013.

The refusal to honor Cengic, while at the same time schools are being named after a World War II Nazi sympathizer such as Mustafa Busuladzic, only makes the disappointment felt by Ajla Demiragic, a literature professor at the University of Sarajevo, and those like her, more profound.

"In the hallway in front of the lecture hall we're discussing one more lamentable decision by the local authorities, about the naming of the newly built sports arena," Demiragic wrote in her online diary for RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "If [the local officials] cannot agree about paying tribute to Goran Cengic, then it is clear what sort of city they want to build [a mono-national one]. The hardest part to bear is the official explanation that many sportsmen took part in the defense of the municipality where the arena in located, and that [the decision about the name] was the wish of the majority."

Social media has been inundated with citizens in uproar over the perceived injustice -- the local authorities' decision to ignore popular demands for the naming of the new arena. Among those who tweeted their reaction was Bosnia's only Oscar-winning director, Danis Tanovic. He wrote a "message" for the late Cengic, assuring him that this "new Sarajevo no longer deserves your name. Thank you for being a human being until your last breath."

The sports facility will bear the name "New Sarajevo Arena," unintentionally encapsulating the sense of betrayed tradition and values felt by many. Compared to the city that hosted Bono and U2 in 1997, this indeed feels like a "new" Sarajevo -- one that fails to recognize the heroes who helped heal ethnic divides, leaving it vulnerable to relapse.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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