YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

EUROPE: FIVE YEARS LATER : Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina : A Worst-Case Scenario of Rapid Change : Once communism's success story, the former Yugoslav federation has been devastated by war and ethnic division.


SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The glass-and-steel Unis office towers loom over the city like charred skeletons, their mirrored windows blasted out by artillery shells, the metal frames blackened by fire.

In what were once modern apartment houses hugging the rocky banks of the Miljacka River, artists and professional people pass their days debating politics in salons adorned with pianos and oil paintings but deprived of heat, water and light.

Sarajevo airport, given a face lift for the 1984 Winter Olympics, is now a sandbagged no-man's-land, straddling a deadly front line between the forces of the Bosnian government and rebel Serb nationalists. The few civilians leaving this besieged city must grope through a secret tunnel dug under the runway.

In the most bitter of post-Communist ironies afflicting Eastern Europe, the people of the former Yugoslav federation who enjoyed the region's most prosperous lifestyle have been lured in this vaunted age of reform and freedom into the bloodiest conflict to disrupt Europe since World War II.

For the brutalized people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a comfortable and cultured life has been destroyed and replaced with a daily battle for survival.

Five years after the anti-Communist revolutions that were supposed to have ushered in a new world order, Bosnia--especially this shattered capital--has become a monument to madness and a reminder that even sophisticated societies are not immune to the virus of nationalism.

The violent breakup of Yugoslavia has also shaken the widely held belief that people with food on the table, work to perform and faith in the future can learn to overcome past sufferings and injustice.

Under the stern, paternalistic rule of the late Josip Broz, known throughout his 35-year presidency by his wartime code name of Marshal Tito, the myriad peoples of the Balkan federation came to see themselves as Yugoslavs and to overlook individual national groups' earlier trespasses against each other.

But even after four decades of peace and prosperity, skillful manipulation by a handful of political zealots persuaded the descendants of those who suffered atrocities during World War II that they should neither forgive nor forget.

"We all had a very good life before this war. There was no reason for it to have happened, except that some backward people who live in the mountains decided they had to avenge history," says a Sarajevo elementary school principal, Narcis Polimac.

His praise of the Yugoslavia that has been systematically destroyed over the last four years echoes the words of almost every victim of the conflict, with the blame for it subject to ethnic variation.

Many here and in the former Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Macedonia and Croatia--also now independent states--lay the blame on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who began more than seven years ago to whip up a nationalist psychosis to enhance his own power.

Others, especially Serbs, accuse Croatian extremists of confusing independence with ethnic supremacy and undermining the national reconciliation achieved by Tito.

For Bosnians, caught in the cross-fire of the resurgent Serb-Croat conflict, the horror and devastation visited on their fledgling state is a cruel twist of history that might have been avoided if Tito had lived another decade.

Portraits of the late Yugoslav strongman, who died in 1980, still adorn homes and offices in Bosnia, where the most beleaguered victims of the 2 1/2-year-old war believe that they might have been spared if the partisan hero had survived to pilot his people into the post-Cold War world.

Instead, a decade-long power struggle ensued, with unscrupulous politicians emerging to seize the reins of authority and drive the Yugoslav peoples into war and ruin.

Attacks spurred retaliation. Suffering nurtured resentment. Atrocities sated a thirst for revenge.

Now, after 30 months on the treadmill of violence, both the Serbian nationalists holding the high ground and the hapless civilians trapped in inaptly named "U.N. safe havens" below nurse festering grudges against each other for a war that has dropped their living standard nearly into the Stone Age.

Many blame Western powers as much as they blame nationalists for allowing their country to be overrun while mouthing platitudes about the sanctity of property and borders.

"Our only mistake was believing the outside world would help us when we were attacked," says Polimac, the principal. "Now we see that we are on our own. We don't want revenge, but neither will we let those who left us at the Serbs' mercy give away our land and homes."

Vows to press on with the fighting that has already claimed 200,000 lives in Bosnia and 10,000 more in an earlier clash in Croatia raise the specter of an endless and expanding war.

Los Angeles Times Articles