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Sarajevo's 12th Annual Festival of the Arts
The War is Over, But Scare Remain

Story and photos by Jim Bartlett, Editor-in-Chief

On Feb. 7th, Sarajavans began their 12th International Festival of the Arts. This year, however, there was a difference. There was no curfew, and no shelling. Though the festival has managed to be held in one form or another over the last four years, the limitations imposed by the siege and problems of free movement and logistics made it an understandably subdued affair.

People told me how there had been some concerts and theater performances in the city center, but only people who lived nearby, and those who were willing to risk their lives, were able to attend. For the rest of the city, it was impossible to travel. This year all that has changed.

Things are still not back to normal. Many of the traditional venues for the festival are in disrepair or occupied, but this was the first year since the war began that the true international flavor of festivals past, and the full range of events, could be held. With sponsorship from many different organizations around the world and in Bosnia including Radio BiH, UNESCO, and the European Cultural Foundation, a fuller and more meaningful Sarajevo Winter is being held.

I say more meaningful because a great deal of the bleakness of the winter and the post-war hangover seemed to evaporate overnight. There is still the hint of burnout in the air, but the festival opening appeared to signal a fresh burst optimism.

The opening of the festival also saw the lifting of the curfew that has sent residents to their homes at ten o'clock sharp for four years. For the first time since returning to Sarajevo, I heard laughter in the streets. The youth were out in force and even though most cafes are still in the ten o'clock habit, the kids walked the streets till late in the evening.

TV BiH was also a little on the lighter side with classical concerts, traditional performances and various documentaries with a cultural theme—as opposed to the usual political fare. There were performances by the Belgian Symphony, opera from Holland, and a Sarajavan quartet. The Muslim celebration of Ramadan was also on, so there were plenty of shows with an Islamic theme. But overall, the whole concept of revival and rising-above dominated. At least that's the feeling I got.

One thing I noticed about the classics in Sarajevo was a little disturbing. The rock and rollers I had been hanging out with were taking the whole war experience in stride, but there was this nagging indication that the classics community had taken the last four years a little harder than most.

The first indication I had that something was up was the performance I watched by the Sarajevo quartet on BiH TV. There was a piano, a flute, a cello, and a violin. It was a black tie affair at the national theater, but I have never heard anything like it in my life. The lady on piano looked old and strained for her years, and the music that poured from their instruments was the most tortured piece of classical I have ever heard.

It was like Paganini meets Dante meets The Scream. It was like four years of collective rage and pain released in a shrieking, discordant wail that embodied all the helplessness and suffering endured while the rest of the world stood by and watched.

It tripped me out so bad that I had to turn it off. But this was only one musical aspect of an overall impact I was seeing that the war had inflicted. The artwork on display at the festival really made it clear that there were some deep set scars here.

My first stop was the post, the utterly-ruined remains of Sarajevo's Hapsburg period post office. Destroyed in the running street battles of '92, the post is a blackened shell of its former shelf. The large period brass chandeliers were twisted and laying in tangled heaps on piles of rubble, cleared away to make space for a sculpture and painting exhibit.

In one corner sat a tattered-looking man huddled over a small fire, posted I assume, to keep an eye on the sculptures. He looked as if this was the first time in his life he had been in an actual gallery and could have cared less as he stared into the flickering flames.

I quietly looked over the scene. Arranged along the far wall were the paintings, loud and inscribed with lines from Beatles tunes. In the center of the room was a collection of wire and welded sculptures. Some were constructed of found objects, with nearly life-size human figures in various repose attached. The figures were made of welding rod cut to about three inches and welded together like match sticks. The forms were flowing and delicately arranged, but had one disturbing feature—they were headless.

The centerpiece of the arrangement was a large welded cage with demonic-looking bird faces glaring out in all directions. Fronting all this were small glass cases with raw earthenware sculptures of nesting birds under glass. I never did find out the artist's name.

My next stop was the main gallery at the Center for the Creative Arts, featuring the work of popular artist Nusret Pasic. Unlike the post, the arts center has survived relatively unscathed and hosted a number of shows throughout the war.

The Pasic exhibit filled the entire room and consisted of a center piece of reed-thin rods topped with twisted little heads in a pond of water. It was surrounded by four walls covered with charcoal drawings of serpentine shapes topped with heads possessing the most twisted, haunted eyes. I never did get to speak to the artist, but was left with the impression that the whole thing must have come straight out of his nightmares. The experience left me drained.

Sarajevo is experiencing a rebirth. People are free to move around unmolested by hillside snipers. Trams run unhindered. Water stays on all day, and electricity all night. Cafes are open daily and people, while short of cash, no longer have to pay hyper-inflated black-market prices in the stores.

But the demons of this war are only beginning to be faced, to be expressed. A soul-deep healing process must begin and Sarajevo Winter is but a beginning. It will undoubtedly be a long process, but if the artists of Sarajevo are allowed to flower, and hold out the common suffering for all to see, it may be a process that will bring a lasting cure.

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