22 September 1997
Sarajevo pre-show - Convoy!
Sarajevo pre-show - Convoy! The eerie experience of waking to a city used for target practice. Drivers of U2's 40 truck convoy have their own war zone stories to tell.
Sarajevo, set up day.
It might have been the mind-expanding evening I had last night, or it might just have been the combination of junk food, espresso & Bosnian beer, but despite going to bed at 5am, I found myself awake at 8.30 with 'Zooropa' going round my head. I haven't thought about that song for ages, but this is the city of Zooropa if ever there was one. Zoo-nited Nations.
Opening the curtains was revelation number one for the day. It was a clear, crisp, blue sky morning, and now I could see clearly what was hidden by the darkness last night. A ring of hills circles the city, and sitting within this bowl, the cityscape is devastated. Tower blocks which looked reasonably intact last night were now seen to be blown apart - the lower floors often still functioning and inhabited whilst the floors above were in ruins, or just not there at all. The tower block opposite the Holiday Inn, which had seemed so shocking with its large hole in the side, was just a ruin. If we thought our side was bad, the side facing away from our hotel was facing the hills, and looked like a piece of Swiss cheese. The ring of hills made the city so vulnerable, and everywhere you look you can see the results of months and months of shells, mortars, bombs and bullets. Buildings like this one just look like they've been used for target practice.
We had word that the trucks would be delayed in their arrival by several hours, so I strolled out into the town and spent much of the day taking it all in. It would take a more proficient writer than I to describe in any meaningful way what the place is like, but I hope this sketch conveys something. In short, it looks like there was a war here, which one day stopped and then everyone just carried on with their lives.
Wandering the streets, shops & markets, you see people rebuilding their lives some with more success than others, but the city is clean, and there is remarkably little evidence of poverty. Hiking up into the hills a little way and looking down over the city provided a moment which was sobering and amusing. Near to us were the old hillside cottages, all very rustic and overgrown (though often still badly damaged), then the modern cityscape stretch wide, with its half ruined buildings and then more green hills behind. In the middle of all of this, just peeping up into view you could see the top of our yellow arch - the PopMart stage, sticking out above the top of the stadium. It was so funny to see it there, so alien, so out of place. A symbol of hope? An omen of an impending capitalist invasion? The sign of a good time tomorrow night? Who knows? But one thing is certain, despite the countless buildings which are entirely gone, or reduced to rubble, the people of Sarajevo are working hard to get back to some kind of normality, and in many ways it seems to be working. The streets are full of people, the cafes and bars are packed and the mood is up. You begin to understand why this U2 show is such an important event for them - this isn't a charity show, this isn't a benefit gig, its just a regular 'big rock show', like they have in ordinary cities in countries where there aren't wars. Cities like the one Sarajevo is attempting to become once again. In a way we could never have imagined, the arrival of our arch is one tiny sign that the return to normality is underway.
Around midnight I walked up to the stadium, where load-in was well under way. I spent a while chatting to the crew, and it was clear that our truck drivers had arrived here changed men. All the crew flew here, but of course the trucks had to come by road. The 16 advance trucks arrived on Saturday to load in the base steel of the stage, and the support frame for the screen & arch (there's three sets of this part of the staging, which leapfrog), then the remaining 24 'universal' trucks arrived yesterday. These carry the video screen, sound system, lighting, catering, office set ups, etc., and of course the Lemon. Due to their enormous cost, there's only one of each of these items, so all these trucks come to every show.
Both the advance and the universal trucks came the same route, each with an army convoy to escort them, providing increased safety, if not increased speed. Their route had been to come from Italy, to the town of Trieste, the meeting point of the borders of Italy, Slovenia & Croatia. They came past Rijeka and staying in Croatia took the coast road as far as the town of Split, before heading East over the border of Bosnia. One of our drivers, a fine Englishman known for some reason as 'Hazel', was describing to me how beautiful the coastal scenery had been, saying it had contained some of the most beautiful views he'd seen in his life, "and then, fifty miles later, we're driving through Hell." The border crossing into Bosnia had been a little rough, due not to military uprisings or anything quite that exciting, but rather to never ending red tape. The border official, clearly recognising that this moment would be the peak of his document-stamping career, was determined to make the most of it. Five hours later, with a great many pieces of paper stamped, signed and stapled, the trucks rolled on.
The highlight (or low light) of the drive, Hazel said, was passing through Mostar. There is still some unrest in Mostar, so the team had been a little wary (a bomb went off there just this Saturday). However, the army convoy gave assurance enough that they'd pass safely, but nothing prepared them for the state the town was in. "You think Sarajevo's a mess," says Hazel, "at least there's rebuilding and there's life here, most of Mostar is just gone. Its a demolition derby."
All of the drivers talked like this about their journey. They were clearly relieved to have arrived after a 27 hour trek, but there was an emotion in their manner and in their eyes which told you they'd seen things yesterday that they wouldn't forget in a long time. "You know what?" says Hazel, "all those times when you think you've had a rough day? We don't even know what a rough day is. Any day when there's no missiles raining down on you can't be all bad..."