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Sarajevo Hopes to Bring Its Shattered Zoo Back to Life

Europe: Every one of the animals here died during the Bosnian war. Now, the city hopes to rebuild.

April 19, 1998|ALEXANDAR S. DRAGICEVIC | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — As part of Bosnia's postwar generation, 7-year-old Aida has practically never seen a live animal besides a cat or a dog. For her, wildlife exists only on TV and in books.

Sarajevans hope to change that by resurrecting the city's zoo. For 35 years, it was Bosnia's only zoo, but it closed in 1992 when it became part of the front lines in the battle for Sarajevo.

"I don't know what she will do when she sees a real animal live," says Aida's mother, Indira Velagic.

For now, a visitor to the once and future zoo sees only a solitary owl that blinks with sad yellow eyes behind the bars of its cage. The bird was donated in January by a taxi driver after the owl smacked into his cab and was injured.

None of the 124 kinds of animals the zoo housed a few years ago survived the war.

In a push to restock, Park, the Sarajevo company that administers the zoo site, has sent letters to all foreign embassies based in Bosnia with requests to help out in obtaining animals.

Workers also have cleared anti-personnel mines and unexploded mortar shells and grenades from the grounds.

"We decided to do our best to reopen the zoo," says Safet Harbinja, head of Park. "It will become an oasis with trees and grass that Sarajevans will be able to use without fear of mines."

When the Bosnian war broke out, the city's front line ran right through the homes of the animals that had been part of every Sarajevo childhood.

Some animals, like the black bear, died from bullets or explosions.

Others starved because it was impossible to feed them. In August 1992, zookeeper Esref Tahirovic was killed by a sniper while trying to get food to the lion. After that, nobody dared venture onto the grounds.

That month, the last dreadful howls of the lion dying from starvation in his cage echoed through the valley. Then, only the sound of guns could be heard coming from the zoo, after the Bosnian army placed a pillbox in the lion's cage.

When workers entered the facility after the war stopped in 1995, they found only ruins in a minefield.

Sarajevans have been too preoccupied with getting their own shattered lives in order to focus on the zoo, until now.

For starters, Turkey has promised to donate a decent cage for the lonely owl and cages for other birds as well.

The U.S. Agency for International Development already has built a children's playground at the zoo, and now brightly colored swings and slides relieve the gray of the ruined facilities.

Next, the Park company may bring in farm animals.

"Our children don't know that cows give milk," Harbinja says.

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