Budapest Sun
Sarajevo - close to home

Adam LeBor

Aug. 3, 2000


At first glance, Budapest and Sarajevo, (I have just spent a week in the latter) appear to have little in common.

Hungary's capital is prosperous, gleaming, renovated and full of tourists and shiny shopping centers. Sarajevo is none of these. Despite quite extensive reconstruction from the siege of 1992-96, the scars of war are almost everywhere. The train and bus station are still charred from fire and shell-bursts and nearby buildings on the former front line between rebel Bosnian Serbs and government forces are empty shells, their walls blown in, their facades pitted by bullets. Signs warn to be careful of mines.

The deadly splashes of mortar shrapnel still mark the streets, radiating out from the point of impact. Known locally as "roses of death", spots where people died from the explosion are painted red, in memory of their victims.

It is clear also that there has been no post-Communist economic transformation. Most shops are pure Kádár, or rather Tito, era: Dark brown walls, dark brown shelves, illuminated by 30-watt light bulbs.

Now, at least, the receptionist at the famed Holiday Inn hotel has no AK-47 under the counter and the swoosh of rockets no longer keeps guests awake. Even during the worst moments of the war, the city's proud spirit was never broken, merely driven underground.

As a stable peace gains strength, Sarajevo once again flourishes. Important buildings such as ministries, the university and the presidency have been rebuilt with the foreign aid that is pouring in. Including the troops of the UN Sfor (Stabilization Force), about 55,000 foreigners live in Sarajevo, bringing welcome money and an end to the years of isolation.

Sarajevo, too, has its own version of Liszt Ferenc tér, called Ferhadia. In fact it is even more lively and crowded. Rows of cafés line both sides and every night it seems the whole city is on the streets; teenagers, mothers, even grandmothers gracefully take each other's arms and stroll back and forth. It is an engaging, Mediterranean parade, a human tide that ebbs and flows for hours, broken to greet friends and stop for one of the endless, potent coffees that Bosnians imbibe day and night.

The much touted - by the Serbs at least - fear of a radical Islam seems groundless. True, there is an Iranian cultural center offering the thoughts of various Ayatollahs in the Bosnian language, but it is mostly deserted. Outside, three young women teeter by in high heels and halter tops, the universal uniform of European youth. Even those who do wear the hijab (headscarf) often wear make-up as well.

If recent history of war and destruction divides Sarajevo from Budapest, longer ties of history unite these two cities. Back in the 16th century, Budapest, like Sarajevo, was an important outpost of the Ottoman empire. In Sarajevo much of the historic Ottoman architecture still stands, while the mosques and medresas (Islamic schools) of Budapest have long since vanished. Although there are no functioning hamams (Turkish baths) in Sarajevo, Budapest still has three.

After the rule of Istanbul came that of Vienna. Once again Hungary and Bosnia were, in effect, part of the same country, after the Hapsburg armies marched into Bosnia in the latter part of the 19th century. They stayed until the empire crumbled after the outbreak of the First World War.

Like Budapest, Sarajevo retains many Hapsburg-era buildings, the solid magnificence of which still radiate a sense of empire and majesty, solidity and permanence, coated in that characteristic yellow stucco.

There is even a Teréz körút of sorts, called Terezia, named after the Hapsburg empress. The long-term hope of Bosnians now is that one day their country will once again be united with Hungary, in the European Union.



Original article