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FEATURE 14 Dec 17

Youth Olympics Kindle Hopes of Unity for Sarajevo

The Bosnian capital Sarajevo became divided from the mostly Serb-populated East Sarajevo because of the war, but they are now preparing to hold the 2019 European Youth Olympics Festival together.

Mladen Lakic
East Sarajevo
The road from Sarajevo to East Sarajevo. Photo: BIRN

“Even today, my parents talk about the ’84 Olympics with a sparkle in their eyes,” says 23-year-old East Sarajevo football player Marinko Papaz.

Marinko’s family are reminiscing because after more than 20 years of political and ethnic divisions that turned Sarajevo into two cities, the city is coming back together to co-host the European Youth Olympics Festival, EYOF, in winter 2019. 

The event has been bringing back memories of when Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984, before war divided it.

“They say everything was perfect back then and I want to tell the same story about the Youth Olympics to my kids one day,” Marinko says.

“I want to be a volunteer and I am sure that we, the young people from East Sarajevo and Sarajevo are able to make this right and to show that our two towns are more than a wartime story.”

With the collaboration promising to be one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s biggest ever sports events, politicians from both sides of town are talking up a refreshingly new sense of unity.

“EYOF brings chances for better times between Sarajevo and East Sarajevo. Many volunteers from our two cities will have a chance to be a part of something significant. I remember how enthusiastic everyone was about the ’84 Olympics,” said Sarajevo’s deputy mayor, Milan Trivic.

Miroslav Lucic, president the East Sarajevo Assembly, said the youth Olympics are not just a great chance to capitalise on the potential for tourism and sport. “This is a chance to show that we can work together on important things, not just for the people of these two towns but for the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well,” he said.

“We did have other projects with Sarajevo but this one brings a lot of attention. We plan to have the closing ceremony in East Sarajevo and we will do our best to show what we can do.”

One of those projects, a newly-rebuilt cable car joining Sarajevo and the East as it climbs Mount Trebevic, carries symbolic weight, its predecessor being the ticket to a mountain top picnic for many Sarajevans for more than 30 years before the start of the war in 1992.

“We hope that Trebevic’s cable railway will be functional from next year, that is also something that brings us together,” Lucic said.

The new spirit of cooperation has been welcomed. But ever since East Sarajevo was established during the 1992-1995 war, many think that politicians have actively pushed the people of both cities apart by playing on nationalist tensions.

“If you ask politicians we are completely divided, we can’t live together. But [they will also tell you] we are happy, we don’t have problems with low salaries or corruption,” 28-year-old East Sarajevo salesman Slobodan Todorovic said with a smile.

Marija Tesanovic, 27 and also from the east, agrees.“I have a feeling that all the nationalist topics are just used to take the focus away from our everyday problems. It is like those politicians are trying to convince us that we cannot live together,” she said. 

The political divisions caused by the war meant that East Sarajevo became home to the majority of the city’s Bosnian Serbs in 1995. The city lines were drawn along its streets, in some cases leaving one side of the road in Sarajevo and the other side in the East. 

Even though it was formalised in 2006 as the capital of Republika Srpska, Bosnia's Serb-dominated entity, only the occasional sign saying “Welcome to Republika Srpska” gives you the hint that you are in a different city when you enter East Sarajevo. 

But even though politics and unresolved issues from the past makes this invisible administrative line an actual border in people’s lives, a shared sense of space is growing.

“I see Sarajevo as my own town even if I do live in East Sarajevo. After all, it is so close and if we don’t have something here, I will find it in Sarajevo,” says Marija Tesanovic.

“I know that we have some crazy situations when your flat is in one city and your parking space is in another, but this is Bosnia, here everything is possible,” she says.

After going to college in Sarajevo but high school in the east, Marija thinks the people of both cities are moving on, despite their political loyalties.

“I remember that when I was a kid, older guys used to have fights on ‘the entity’ border, as our parents called the part where East Sarajevo meets Sarajevo. But nowadays, I don’t see that and it is better this way,” she says.

Similarly, Slobodan Todorovic sees no borders when it comes to his business, but acknowledges some differences.

“We are different towns on paper, but if I can be in the centre of Sarajevo in 15 minutes or so than it is hard to see that as some different town,” he explains. 

“I am not saying that everything is fine. For example, even though people from East Sarajevo work in Sarajevo or people from Sarajevo buy apartments here because they are cheaper, there is still some distance when it comes to marriage between Bosnian Serbs and Bosniaks. But this is the same all over the country,” he says.

But the two different systems of regulation makes life hard for some. Although Marko, a local taxi driver, sees people from both Sarajevos getting along well together, he is frustrated with rules requiring him to remove the taxi sign on his car as he passes from side to the other.

“If I ignore this, I can end up paying a 500 BAM [250 euro] fine, which is like a salary, but strangers don’t believe that we have to take the sign off our cars. We lose customers in that way and only God knows what would happen if someone got in a crash without the sign. Who will pay the damage then?” he asks.

Even in Pale, a place many consider to be staunchly loyal to the Srpska Republic on the outskirts of East Sarajevo, the mood is changing. Vedrana, a local coffee shop worker, says with many people finding work in Sarajevo things are returning to normal. 

“It was normal before to hear some bad comments about Sarajevo but today it’s not like that,” she says. “You can find people from here that don’t go to Sarajevo often, or at all, but they are a minority. You will find those kinds of people all over the country but they don’t represent all of us.”

“Yes, this country is divided, in Pale you will find that mostly Serbs live here, in Sarajevo it is Bosniaks, but the war ended a long time ago and people are crossing those invisible lines or borders. I think that is a normal process,” Vedrana said.

And it seems that events like the upcoming youth Olympics will soften those borders even further.

Amina from Sarajevo said she and her husband are proud the EYOF is being hosted by both cities together. “After all that is the important thing, to host that kind of competition. But it is also a great chance to show the world that we can move on,” she said.

“We have spent so many years on hate and it is finally time to stop. Our kids deserve a better future here and the only way for that to happen is to stop seeing differences all the time and focus more on similarities,” her husband Ibrahim agreed.

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