Interview 06 Apr 17

My Sarajevo, A City of Tolerance and Resistance

Meliha Zimic witnessed the liberation of Sarajevo from Nazi occupation 72 years ago, and as its anniversary is commemorated, she recalls how the city’s defiant spirit helped it through WWII and the 1990s siege.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo
Meliha Zimic. Photo: BIRN.

Sehen Sie diese Stadt? Das ist Walter!” are perhaps the only words that most Sarajevans can say in German.

The phrase is from a scene from the 1972 film ‘Walter Defends Sarajevo’, uttered when a German officer finally realises why he was so unsuccessful in trying to catch the leader of the underground resistance during the WWII occupation of the city, Vladimir ‘Walter’ Peric.

The Germans were chasing Peric, but the whole city was actually the resistance, the phrase suggests - an idea which Meliha Zimic, a long-retired high-school professor, still holds dear, 72 years after she witnessed the end of WWII.

Peric was killed on April 6, 1945, the day of the city’s liberation. A street, a newspaper and a film were named after him - but to Sarajevans like Zimic, he remains an important symbol, forever linked to the date they call the Day of Sarajevo or the Day of Resistance.

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The time of Walter

Zimic, who used to teach Bosnian language and literature, describes Sarajevans as natural “enemies of fascism”, and she is one of the dwindling few who witnessed this period in the city’s turbulent history and are still able to talk about it.

She recalled her memories at her home in the historic heart of Sarajevo – the Bascarsija district – where she has lived all her life.

She was seven years old as WWII came to an end.

I remember my father taking me somewhere in a tram, and I saw ‘illegals’ hanging from poles on the street from the window,” she said.

Members of the underground resistance to the Nazi occupation were known as ‘illegals’ at the time.

There were a lot of illegals who were caught and met their death at Bentbasa,” she said, referring to a small neighbourhood on the eastern end of town where people were executed.

Sarajevans were truly part of a resistance, enemies of fascism,” she added.

She remembers grown-ups putting mattresses in their windows to protect themselves, always expecting street battles.

And with great sadness, she also remembers her friend Klara, a Jewish girl from the neighbourhood who she often played with.

As Germans were rounding up Jews and taking them away, she recalls her mother asking her friend’s mother: “Let me have Klara, I will look out for her like I do for my Meliha.”

While the family was considering this option, the Germans picked them up.

I never heard about her again,” Zimic said, almost in a whisper.

She remembers the liberation of Sarajevo by Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Partisan forces particularly vividly.

People were joyful when the Partisans arrived. Everyone came out and brought bread, any food they had. I remember all those Partisan songs well,” she said.

Sarajevo’s ‘Golden Age’

After WWII, Sarajevo was still a small town, stretching from Bascarsija, the old Turkish quarter, to Marijin Dvor, almost two-and-a-half kilometres along the Miljacka river. Now the built-up area stretches out for about 11 kilometres.

We all knew each other, but it was an urban community,” Zimic recalled. “We would go to the theatre weekly, we had cinemas, dances...”

She thinks back with a smile to her student years at the girls’ high school downtown by the river.

The boys’ high school was just across the Drvenija bridge.

Drvenija was our ‘bridge of love’,” she giggles.

During the winter, old and young would go out to sledge down every snow-covered slope in the hilly city, as there was very little traffic.

There was a huge degree of togetherness. If someone would get married, everyone from the street would celebrate and help out. Even if someone would pass an exam, we would all celebrate together,” she said.

She is a great admirer of late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, and insisted that the city was more tolerant during his time.

We all knew who was of which religion, but we all respected it. We would look forward to every [religious] holiday - getting excited about easter eggs for Easter, baklava and money for [Muslim holiday] Bajram,” she said.

Like many other Muslim youngsters in Sarajevo, she always attended midnight masses in church at Christmas, and is still proud of this today.

This was the real value of Sarajevo,” she said.

It was after WWII that Sarajevo started to expand rapidly.

Young people voluntarily joined so-called ‘radne akcije’ - work details organised by the authorities that got young people to help out with building roads and railways.

Zimic said that she and her friends helped in the construction of tram tracks from the Malta neighbourhood towards Ilidza, seven kilometres away to the west.

The only building within that stretch of fields was a villa owned by a man named Cengic; this now crowded part of town is today called Cengic Vila.

Neighbourhoods like Otoka, Grbavica and others in the New Town area emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.

Zimic said that Sarajevans were happy every time the city made another step forward - like when the cable car to Mount Trebevic was opened in the early 1960s or when the first shopping mall was built in the 1980s.

The city was particularly proud of its music scene in the 1960s, she recalled, saying how young people were so enthusiastic about local rock bands like the legendary Indexi – the first band of many that emerged in Sarajevo and conquered Yugoslavia.

By the end of the 1970s, locals even nicknamed their music scene the 'Sarajevo school of rock and roll'.

Darkness falls again

Not long after the city saw its brightest moments and introduced itself to the world as the host of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, the unimaginable happened.

On April 5, 1992, people from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina poured into the capital for a peace rally, protesting against the rise of nationalism that had already taken over the Yugoslav republics.

Most Bosnians had already chosen independence from Yugoslavia in a referendum at the end of February that year, although the vote was boycotted by the country’s Serbs.

Slovenia and Croatia had already seceded, and staying within the rump Yugoslavia made no sense to Muslims - now called Bosniaks - and to Bosnian Croats.

But for most Bosnian Serbs, independence was unacceptable.

The daily quarrelling between nationalist politicians caused thousands of fed-up citizens to gather in the main square in front of parliament to protest that day.

Shots were fired into the crowd by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, who killed two female students, Olga Sucic and Suada Dilberovic, who were among the first of more than 100,000 victims of the Bosnian war.

During the siege that followed, Zimic remembers the daily sniping and shelling, as well as the hunger and the cold.

But people were still going out their houses - nobody wanted to hide all the time.

We still had our responsibilities. I was going to work to teach children,” she said.

This was also a type of resistance. We women would always try to put on clean clothes, despite a lack of water - out of defiance,” she added.

She explained that there was a huge amount of solidarity among people living in the city at the time.

Like the others, she ran along what foreigners called Sniper Alley to avoid gunshots, a section of the main boulevard which locals called the ‘Alley of Life’.

We would wait for each other to run across passages between the buildings, and we would hold on to a rope - so that we can pull each other in if one gets hit and wounded,” she remembered.

If only one sniper was firing on the neighbourhood that day, locals would calculate the time between shots fired so they could use the window of opportunity to run from one side to the other while the gunman was reloading.

People who were clueless about weapons in 1992 learned to tell by the sound of a blast if a 60mm, 90mm or heavy 120mm calibre mortar had hit, and how far away it was.

A lot of my students died or were wounded,” Zimic said. “But in the end we survived, because in this war as well, there was a huge Sarajevan resistance.

Those who could would take their children out of the city, but the older people mainly stayed.

We did not just want to let them march into Sarajevo and divide it like they had planned,” she said.

The Bosnian war was even worse that WWII, she insisted.

One could more freely move around during World War II,” she said.

There was little food, but people were able to travel outside town and bring some in.

In this last war, however, we were all hungry. No water, no food. People were picking nettles and other grass from the ground to eat. They would use old wells, desperate for water,” she recalled.

The spirit of Sarajevo

The war left Sarajevo in ruins, and the next two decades were the years of the construction cranes, while hammering and drilling echoed through the valley almost day and night, and eventually the city started growing again.

But Zimic does not like some of the new architecture: “They are putting these huge buildings where they are not supposed to be. Towers higher than Mount Trebevic. It does not fit Sarajevo’s ambience,” she complained.

She also does not like some of the city’s new elite.

Some new people have emerged - and they only serve themselves. Megalomaniacs who are trying to prove their worth through their money,” she said.

An unjust group of people is in power, and they base everything they do on national [ethnic] divisions,” she added.

Whoever judges people by their nationality [ethnicity] or social status is not welcome among true Sarajevans.”

For her, the biggest tragedy of recent times is that young people are rapidly leaving the city, looking for a better life elsewhere.

I know many of my friends’ children living all around the world, and they want to come back. However, they can’t because there are no jobs,” she said.

Yet despite all this, she recognises that some of the Sarajevo spirit that she has loved all her life is still alive.

She describes it as a mixture of openness and honesty, but also resistance to and defiance of all that is unjust.

This spirit also includes Sarajevo’s well-known black humour, which she said had helped people cope with the years of hardship.

We also laugh at ourselves a lot. It makes everything easier,” she explained.

She recalled a line from a popular song by Sarajevan rock band Zabranjeno Pusenje, which mentions a local habit of putting out a spare cup when serving coffee in case anyone else drops by.

All those who are well intentioned were always welcome here,” she said.

But there is something that she insisted must not be allowed to change.

I don’t want to live here if I can’t hear both church bells and the ezan [the Muslim call to prayer],” she said. “Because this is Sarajevo.”

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