I went to Sarajevo this spring to take part in an international poetry festival, and to receive an award and launch a book of my selected poems that had just been published in Bosnia. This was my first visit to a city known for its extraordinary suffering during the siege by the Serbian forces led by Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996. Flying in on a clear day and seeing the way the mountains and hills press against Sarajevo on three sides, I could easily comprehend the destruction that artillery, mortars, heavy machine guns, and snipers could inflict on its inhabitants, who would have had great difficulty defending themselves. I could see the Serbian siege for what it was: a deliberate effort to collectively punish a city, and terrorize and starve its inhabitants, while taking satisfaction in firing from safe and unassailable heights.
Once on the ground, I felt even more the proximity of these hills that dominate every view, loom at the end of every street, and in time of peace adorn the city with their greenery and the red rooftops dotting their slopes. Sarajevo combines the appearances of a mountain resort one would visit for one’s health, an Ottoman town with mosques and minarets from a nineteenth-century hand-painted postcard, a turn-of-the-century Austro-Hungarian provincial capital with the kind of public buildings one finds everywhere the empire set its foot in the Balkans and Eastern Europe, and a city of high-rise modern office and apartment buildings that resemble many other places in Europe.
Today one is astonished to discover that almost every building in Sarajevo suffered some degree of damage during the siege, and that 35,000 were completely destroyed, including most famously the national library with its thousands of irreplaceable old books and manuscripts. Since a great deal of what had been blown up has been rebuilt, the city appeared to be thriving, and given the warm and sunny weather during my visit and the sight of many people strolling in the streets or sitting in cafés chatting amiably, everything that occurred here fifteen years ago seemed inconceivable.
I was soon busy meeting people, being interviewed, grabbing an early dinner with a Bosnian poet I’d met in Berlin years ago, and afterward attending a delightful group reading in a gambling casino where the poems were read on a small stage accompanied by the sound of chips on the gaming tables and slot machines in the background. “Sarajevo Days of Poetry,” as the gathering of poets was called, had brought together poets from Austria, Montenegro, Armenia, France, Croatia, Cyprus, Kosovo, Hungary, Macedonia, Malta, Morocco, Germany, Romania, Russia, Slovenia, Serbia, Sudan, Switzerland, and Turkey, as well as poets from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Such meetings tend to be both exhausting and rewarding, since one spends days and nights drinking and talking …