A return to Logavina Street

Barbara Demick works in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn while covering Bosnia in the 1990s. She had moved The Inquirers Eastern Europe bureau from Berlin to a room several floors below this one. Previous tenants in her room had taken to the habit of circling and dating new bullet holes in the room. The higher a building, the more exposed it was to fire. Demick later moved to Logavina Street. JOHN COSTELLO / File Photo
Barbara Demick works in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn while covering Bosnia in the 1990s. She had moved The Inquirers Eastern Europe bureau from Berlin to a room several floors below this one. Previous tenants in her room had taken to the habit of circling and dating new bullet holes in the room. The higher a building, the more exposed it was to fire. Demick later moved to Logavina Street. JOHN COSTELLO / File Photo
Posted: June 25, 2012

In the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union, a nationalist revival swept Eastern Europe. The singular tragedy was that it found its most pernicious expressions in the places that were most ethnically diverse. The beautiful city of Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia, with its intermingling of cultures, cuisines, and architecture, its mosques, Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and its synagogues was just such a place.

When Yugoslavia broke apart, Serb nationalists who had dominated the military decided they wanted Bosnia for their own. For three — and-half years, from 1992 to 1995, they held the beautiful capital city of Sarajevo under siege, closing off food supplies, electricity, water, and telephone, keeping up a steady onslaught of mortar and sniper fire against the city's civilian population.

I was at the time the Eastern Europe reporter for The Inquirer. In order to bring home the reality of the war, my editors suggested I pick a street and along with a staff photographer, John Costello, profile the people living there and their lives during the war.

Logavina Street rises steeply from the heart of the stari grad, or old city, with white minarets piercing the sky above the red rooftops. I spent the better part of two years on the street drinking filjans of strong coffee and hearing about how people's lives unraveled.

I met Delila Lacevic, who had been a normal, boy-crazy teenager until the year before when her parents' were decapitated before her eyes by a mortar shell that crashed into a wall above their heads while they queued for water. Ekrem Kaljanac, a young electrician lost two fingers when a sniper's dumdum bullet exploded inside the body of a disabled neighbor he was trying to rescue. His wife, Minka, made the most delicious fake "Wiener schnitzel" out of humanitarian aid rations for their two young sons.

Most of my time was spent in the home of Zijo and Jela Dzino. He is a Muslim from an old Sarajevo family; she is a Catholic. Their daughter was married to a Serb. It wasn't a big deal. About one third of Sarajevo marriages were mixed before the war. Jela used to tell me over coffee that Bosnians were like "cornmeal and flour mixed into the same bowl." I met many of their Serb neighbors in the house.

A little down the hill was Jovan Divjak, a Serb born in Belgrade, who became a general in the Bosnian army because he disagreed with the nationalists who wanted to split up along ethnic lines. There were several Serbs on Logavina Street who were fighting with the Bosnian army to defend Sarajevo.

Given the cruelty of the war, it was surprising how well people treated the Serbs who remained in the city. There was an elderly Serb widow on Logavina who had two sons fighting on the other side with the Bosnian Serb militia keeping Sarajevo under siege. She didn't have a telephone. When her sons wanted to reach her, they'd call at the Dzinos; Jela, who was recovering from a mortar attack, would limp over to bring the neighbor to the phone. Afterward, they'd send her home with some bread or vegetables from their garden.

The war was not so much Serbs vs. Muslims vs. Croats as it was about people who thought everybody could live together and those who wanted to divide up along ethnic lines.

After years of dithering, and a massacre of 8,000 unarmed men at Srebrenica, the international community finally launched air strike against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995. The war ended with an agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, that effectively partitioned Bosnia into two entities, one Serb controlled and the other a federation of Muslims and Croats.

I have stayed in touch with the people on Logavina Street since the end of the war and have been back three times, most recently in April when Bosnians marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war.

At least superficially, Sarajevo is the same old party town it was before the war. Along the pedestrian street running from the old Turkish market past the cathedral, people stream by at all hours, flitting from café to café. But the economy has never recovered from the war. Unemployment is over 40 percent, high even by the dismal standards of southern Europe today.

Many of the young people I knew on Logavina Street have moved on for better opportunities. Tarik Kaljanac, the younger son of the policeman, somehow grew into a strapping 6-foot-2 young man on humanitarian rations and now models Calvin Klein underwear and Armani suits out of Singapore. Delila Lacevic, traumatized by the death of her parents, left for the United States during the war and never came back. She lives in Texas and is a retail executive.

The Muslim population of central Sarajevo is now about 90 percent, up from 50 percent before the war. One reason is simply that it is easier for young Croats to move to Croatia, or Serbs to Serbia, where the job opportunities are better.

Bosnia is seldom in the news these days, its tragedies buried by the wheels of the news cycle under the fresher horrors of Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria. It is hard to remember that Bosnia was, in the words of the late Susan Sontag, as emblematic a struggle as the Spanish Civil War, that seemed to "sum up the principle opposing forces of one's time."

People are more cynical now than they were in the 1990s about multiethnicity. Indeed, an influential essay in Foreign Affairs in 2008 by Jerry Z. Muller posited the theory that homogenous nation-states are more stable and democratic and that ethnic war was merely a "tragic detour on the road to peaceful liberal democratic order."

But residents on Logavina Street are still trying in their own way to maintain a multiethnic space within the Balkans.

Divjak, the Serb general, is now running an NGO in Sarajevo promoting tolerance through education. A Serb woman I've known from the war, Desa Stanic, whose husband was killed fighting with the Bosnians, had moved briefly to Zagreb, the Croatian capital, after the war to get medical treatment for her son, who'd been injured by a mortar exploding in their yard. "The minute I opened my mouth, the Croatians could tell I was from Bosnia. And if I told anybody my first name, they knew I was Serb," Desa told me. She ended up moving back along with her children, now both adults. Her daughter is now married to a Muslim. The only place they all belonged was Sarajevo.

Excerpted from the updated "Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood" (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). E-mail Barbara Demick at barbara.demick@latimes.com.

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