21 September 1997
Italy/Sarajevo - Dark night of the soul.
Italy/Sarajevo - Dark night of the soul. Pre-show night in Sarajevo, which still bears the scars of war. Willie and crew discover, warmth, humour and a bouyant determination to survive.
Slept late and got up just in time to make the lobby call for our flight to Sarajevo. Only knowing the place by hearing its name on news bulletins makes the whole episode a tad surreal - seeing an airport TV monitor bearing the words "check in for flight 284 - Sarajevo" only strikes you as odd when you see it and realise you've never see the word Sarajevo in an airport before. We flew at 8pm, so we made our descent into Bosnia after nightfall.. This added even more gravitas to the situation - being struck by just simple things, like seeing the lack of streetlights and how many illuminated windows had no curtains. The whole crew was on board the aeroplane and the communal mood was taking on an increasingly nervous edge. Sombre, almost. Arrival at Sarajevo airport was chaos, of course. Immigration, passport control and especially baggage claim were like mad caricatures of regular airport life, but we got through it and boarded three large buses to take us all into the city.
As you leave the airport the first thing you pass is a huge cemetery. By night, the light of many candles could be seen flickering in the surrounding darkness - a reminder of how very recent so many of the grave are. Our journey continued, and gradually a silence fell over the bus, as we all looked out of the windows at the passing landscape. Close to the airport many of the buildings are residential tower blocks. The (again mostly uncurtained) windows lit up the night, but every other tower block was entirely dark, blacked out. Peering through the window you could see why - they were just burned out shells of buildings.
I've never heard a road crew so quiet in my life as we rolled on into town. This juxtaposition of normal life and devastation became the ongoing motif as we drove on. Domesticity meets CNN live. Even arriving at our destination - the newly refurbished Holiday Inn - you couldn't fail to be moved by seeing, right across the street, a huge burned out tower block with a gigantic hole in its side, clearly made by something substantially larger than a bullet. Even the Holiday Inn is pock marked with bullet holes. Out front, in the lobby and most noticeably right above the bed head in the room of one of our camera operators. We certainly ain't in Kansas anymore. By the time we got in and settled it was approaching midnight on a Sunday night, but we had to go out. You couldn't arrive in a place as disturbing and exhilarating as this and just go to bed. So a few of us set out and walk along the street towards the old town. Its cold compared to where we have just come from, and the darkness adds to the Wintery vibe. Despite the day and the hour, there were a lot of people on the streets and the mood seemed very buoyant. Young people, well dressed, out and about. We followed the main stream and ended up in the old town. Again the visual contradictions are massive to the point of disorientation. A completely blown out shop unit sits next door to a shop selling vacuum cleaners and TVs. People sit drinking in a bar on an alleyway where all else lies in charred ruins. You recognise streets and buildings from news reports, and just a little way away you can make out the hills which were alive with snipers only a year or so ago.
Reminders of this recent history are everywhere, of course - bullet holes in every wall, mortar craters in every sidewalk. But not all of the monuments are so destructive. It seems local artists are making reminders of their own, even if they seem a little macabre to us newcomers. Around the city are these 3' high sculptures of a 'flash', like a Roy Lichtenstein PopArt explosion. Also, I saw some mortar craters filled in with a kind of red plastic or vinyl, permanently set into the pavement like a blood splatter. I'm not sure what these represent exactly, but clearly they are tributes or monuments of some kind.
Myself and Bruce and Lynno from the lighting crew found a little snack bar place which seemed pretty lively and entertained the locals by trying to order food. We'd been tipped off that Deutschmarks is the currency of favour, so armed with a good few DMs we carried on fearlessly. As it happened, we got beer and sandwiches, which really weren't so bad, for after midnight. Come to think of it, you couldn't buy a beer and a sandwich at that hour of the night in London. We sat looking out at the street, remarking how friendly and warm and... well, safe... the city seemed. Just as we were about to bite into our food, all the lights went out. Major power failure. The whole street went black and silent, only interrupted by the odd passing car. Ah, well. Candles came out and we carried on. The owner of the snack bar came to talk to us, he guessed we were here with U2 and had and important question. "In English is DuckTrade' one word or two words?". How's that for bizarre question of the year. We looked around and saw that this was the name of the establishment. Oh... one's fine, we said, sympathetically.
Moving on we found a basement bar which was just jumping. Having been frisked for weapons on the door, we went on in, to find some of our tour crew in there - notably Kurt, Smasher, Chris and Klass from the Belgian video screen crew. It was great - a simple basement room with a bar and very loud music, so it was beer and eventually talking to the locals. The place was close to closing, but the Belgians had made friends with some of the clientele who were headed on elsewhere, so I tagged along.
The next bar (another basement) was a quarter of the size, but equally loud, playing James Brown, R&B & more, with a young crowd who were pleased to talk to us. A guy called Dan was telling me that he grew up here, but in '92 moved away to London and then to Croatia because of the war. He had come back to Sarajevo because he wanted to see U2 and today was the first day he had been here in five years. He was constantly being greeted with delight by people who were obviously old friends, and a real party atmosphere took over the place. I met another guy who said he was the singer in the band "Protest", who were on the bill at the U2 show. He was really excited about the whole thing too - everybody was - and you begin to understand what this show represents for the city.
In search of food, we took to the street again, and it really seemed that the whole city was so upbeat. Dan was telling us that this is like the atmosphere was in Sarajevo before the war, and he was clearly quite emotional about it all. We walked across an area of open ground and he told us this was where many people died & pointed out the hills where the snipers used to be. We walked along the streets past the functioning shops with the blackened shells of devastated buildings in between. Dan was giving a running commentary as we walked, though I'm not sure if he was really talking to me, or to himself. "The house I grew up in was right there. That building used to be a shoe factory, this was an expensive restaurant, that one was a supermarket... and I can't remember what used to be just here..." The look on his face told his story more poignantly than the words coming out of his mouth. Its beyond my comprehension, what regular people in this city have been through. Yet for those that remain, life goes on, in all its glorious ordinariness.
Our hopes of further food were dashed when, arriving at the all night hamburger stand the guy inside tells us he has no food. All he has is soft drinks. Quite why, even here, a man would stay in a small booth at 4am with only Coca Cola to sell remains a mystery, but it became clear it was time for us to head home. The Holiday Inn was a ghost town too, so we gave up and turned in for the night.
Wild night. Heaven knows what the next couple of days are going to bring, but already I've taken a definite liking to Sarajevo and to its citizens.