Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Old Sarajevo Eyes Incomers with Suspicion

The famously multi-ethnic character of the capital has radically changed since the end of the war – and not everyone is happy about it.
By Mirsad Bajtarevic

In the heart of the Old Town area of Sarajevo, the blackened facade of the Hotel Europa stands like a monument to the forgotten glories of the Austro-Hungarian era.

Once a favourite meeting spot for locals, journalists, academics and intellectuals used to gather on summer afternoons in the hotel's outside garden. But the money invested in so many ruined buildings since the end of the 1992-5 conflict in Bosnia has missed the Europa, which was shot to smithereens by Serbian shellfire.

The former summer garden is now a car park. "It would be nice if it was renovated but there is no interest, as people have changed," the car-park attendant said, looking at the ruin. "No one needs it any longer."

Reminders of the new Sarajevo are not far away. Twenty metres from the derelict hotel is the Café Bar Central. A popular meeting place for the post-war jet set, the owner - along with most of the clients - is not from Sarajevo, but from Sandzak, a mostly Muslim region of southeast Serbia.

In the eyes of many local people, the contrast between the ruined façade of the Europa and the smart front of the Central symbolises the uncomfortable changes that have overtaken the Bosnian capital in the past 10 or 15 years.

While many who endured the three-year siege of Sarajevo later abandoned their homes and are scattered all over the world, newcomers from Sandzak have poured in, alongside thousands of Muslims from eastern towns that now are under Serb rule.

Tension between pre-war inhabitants and recent immigrants is obvious and many refuse to mingle with the "other" side unless they have to.

Some embittered old-timers see the Sandzakis as little more than peasants who have destroyed the spirit of their city. The popular stereotype is that while the original Sarajevans shop in second-hand stores, the newcomers drive expensive cars, shop at Versace and Benetton and have expensive mobile phones.

That the city's population has changed drastically is indisputable. Since the 1991 census, when Sarajevo had 430,000 inhabitants, the population has fallen by a quarter and a new category of resident has been added – displaced people.

As a result, the ethnic make-up has been completely transformed. The number of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) has risen by a third, while Serbs and Croats have declined in number accordingly, statistics at the Sarajevo Mayor's office indicate.

"The population structure changed drastically because those who used to live here mainly went abroad," lamented Senad Didarevic, a Sarajevo-born souvenir salesman in the Old Town. "And people expelled from other cities in the war moved in. The whole of Podrinje [eastern Republika Srpska] is here."

The architecture of the Old Town, around the former Ottoman marketplace known as the Bascarsija, reflects the city's new image. Standing next to one another are a mosque, a church and a synagogue, and the sounds of the muezzin's wail and of tolling church bells mingle in the air.

But as he wipes the sweat off his face, Mehmed Uzicanin, a leather merchant, wonders if immigration may alter Sarajevo's tradition of peaceful co-existence. "Everything has changed," he said. "People want to live in a big city because it's easier and their culture obviously affects the area’s traditional culture."

Mustafa Kubat, 74, told IWPR that his city had barely absorbed the last big wave of incoming refugees in the Forties before taking on this latest number.

"The consequences of the Second World War can still be felt in Sarajevo," he said.

"More than 60,000 refugees arrived at that time, and it took 50 years for them to get used to it and accept the culture and the order of the city. Now all these new people have come, and we need to see what to do with them. Will they adopt a civic spirit? That's a difficult issue."

One local character, a moustachioed shoe cleaner known as Uncle Misa, is even more distressed. The customers he came to know well over his half-century in the trade have mostly gone. Tears welling in his eyes, he said, "Sarajevo isn't what it used to be. The shoes have changed along with the people!"

Such views are becoming widespread, and are not restricted to those born and brought up in the city. Jovan Divjak, a Belgrade-born retired general, last month published a book on the city, Sarajevo - Mon Amour, in which he questioned whether the Bosnian capital’s famously mixed character would survive the recent ethnic changes.

"Like all cities in this country, Sarajevo has become increasingly mono-ethnic," he told IWPR. "If, before the war, the city was 44 per cent Bosniak, 32 per cent Serb and 17 per cent of Croat – and if it is now more than 80 per cent Bosniak, we cannot talk about [it] as we once could."

Divjak complained that inhabitants are now under pressure to accept the customs of the city’s dominant ethnic group – the Bosniaks. "Insisting on the culture of just one people is not good, and this is what has changed," he said.

While many locals depict immigrants as businessmen from Sandzak, muscling into their city, most incomers are in fact victims of ethnic cleansing who had nowhere to go after the war ended.

Popular jokes reflect the mixed feelings about the changes. In one, a man complains to his friend that his building has been overrun by people from Foca, and then adds, "Only I am from Visegrad!" (Both towns were ethnically cleansed in 1992.)

For Kada Hotic, a refugee from Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, moving to Sarajevo was not a lifestyle choice but a necessity. She escaped there after her town was overrun by Bosnian Serb troops in 1995, leading to the murder of more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys.

"Sarajevo is a sanctuary where I have found some peace. In Srebrenica I could never find that - it has been taken away from me," she said.

She is well aware that many people resent incomers such as herself. "Many look on me as a foreigner," she said. “But I am not guilty for living here."

Saljo Mrkulic conforms more to the popular stereotype of the ambitious Sandzak businessman. Sarajevans crack many jokes about such entrepreneurs, and send up their supposed interest in property deals. In one, Little Red Riding Hood knocks on her grandmother's door. Instead of the fairy tale's usual ending, featuring a wolf, she hears the following answer, "Your grandma doesn’t live here anymore. I came from Sandzak and I bought her house."

Mrkulic has indeed opened a hotel, called Hollywood, in the suburb of Ilidza. He says jealousy is the source of most local resentment and believes that Sarajevans should follow the example of the Americans, who welcome the newcomers' energy.

"If you were an immigrant in the United States and you started up a business how many people would raise an eyebrow?" Mrkulic asked.

Rifet Skrijelj, president of Association of Bosniaks from Sandzak, which boasts more than 8,000 members, believes that too many people are clinging to historical stereotypes and prejudices.

"This [hostility] is the reaction of the community, and not only towards us," he said. "It is a typical Balkan reaction - pigeonholing people."

Skrijelj points out that many people in the capital are working for Sandzak-owned businesses, which contribute much to the otherwise stagnant economy. "We should also not forget that many people from Sandzak defended Sarajevo during the war," he added.

The old residents of Sarajevo have probably not disappeared to the extent that many people think - they simply no longer rule the social scene any more. The city's Writers' Club is a prime example. While the building has survived the war - and since been renovated - the clientele has changed.

"Writers and people of letters used to come here, but such people no longer have the economic power they used to," said restaurant manager Sulejman Kapic, puffing a cigar.

"Unfortunately, the grave economic situation determines whether or not a person can come to a place like this."

He said that Sarajevo’s hospitality industry had changed massively, but stressed that the new customers were not the Sandzak businessmen of popular legend, but foreigners. "Because the economy is so underdeveloped, Sarajevo relies on the 20,000 foreigners living here. All restaurateurs expect them to be their main guests," he added.

Professor Salih Foco, a sociology specialist at the University of Sarajevo, said that the capital was bound to experience profound change after the trauma of a long, terrible war.

"The negative thing is that the more vital part of the population that has moved into the city brings with it a more primitive culture. The city has lost many of its traditional values, such as good manners," he said.

But Ismet Didarevic, psychology professor at the university, stresses that throughout history, locals have resented outsiders moving in to their surroundings. "Their attitude is that they [the incomers] have taken something from them that is rightfully theirs," he said.

"However, I do not think there is much danger that the image of the city will change," he added. "Sarajevo has its soul and that cannot be changed easily."

Mirsad Bajtarevic is a journalist with the BH Radio 1 in Sarajevo.