The War Left and the Coffee Returned by Tom Squitieri

SARAJEVO – Just about 6 p.m. an old familiar aroma begins its daily meandering trip onto Branilaca Street. It is a smell that instantly reminds the citizens of Sarajevo of past good times.

It is coffee. Coffee being brewed. Coffee beans being ground. Coffee set in small cups by the entrances to the Cotton Club or Caffe Ramona or Gallerija to tempt those passing by. The smell embraced me as I walk through the streets, at times almost floating through the street.  It is a smell I have long longed for and to spoke to rebirth.

You may talk of how electricity in the homes and gasoline at the pumps is a sign that Sarajevo has survived its 42-month siege. But to many citizens here, it is the return of the coffee cafes, of their smells and sounds, that says peace has arrived.

“Ah, to sit in a glass window or, in the summer, to sit at the tables outside and see who passes by and make your comments. This is how we know we are living again,” Erna Ribar, who works for the local UNICEF office, said to me.

In this city, coffee – and finding the right place to savor a cup – is far beyond a casual luxury. Like its cosmopolitan cousins of Prague, Budapest and Vienna, the soul of the Sarajevo is revealed among the sips of this thick, high octane ooze. Ever since it was part of the old Hapsburg Empire centuries ago, a visit to the coffee cafes was required to know what was happening in Sarajevo.

The war took all that away.  It was important that I — and the city — find it again.

From April 1992, when the fighting started, until last October, when the current cease-fire began, few would even consider sitting by a window in one of the city’s venerable coffee houses.

During the war, Sarajevo’s population fell from 500,000 to 350,000 as people left the city. An estimated 9,000 adults and 1,600 children were killed. Much of the city was reduced to rubble.

The resurgence of the coffee cafes has come as part of a gradual rebirth of other once routine aspects of life in Sarajevo. As April 6, the fourth anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war, draws near the Sarajevo of 1996 continues to offer stark contrasts to life during the war.

In the suburbs outside of Sarajevo, houses were burned and businesses destroyed as many ethnic Serbs were forced to leave under a plan by Bosnian Serbs officials to thwart a return to the multi-ethnicity the city touted before the war began. Writing on these took me far away from what I knew to be the old, wonderful ays.

But while surrounded by that ring of fire and fear, the center of Sarajevo continues to hold together as it did throughout the war.  It gave hope to those who defied the bullets and to those like me who wrote of it.

More than 10,000 Serbs live in the so-called Muslim side of the city, where the downtown and its coffee cafes are. Today, even as many flee Sarajevo’s suburbs, hundreds of Serbs, Muslims and Croats are returning to the city for the first time in four years.

Those who come will find a city that was kept alive on an airlift of rice, beans, soy and sometimes canned fish now has restaurants offering nightly specials and waiting lists for reservations. Soup kitchens have given way to home delivery of pizzas. Stores are crowded with fruits and vegetables recently available only on the black market. Specialty shops have shoes from Italy, chocolates from Belgium and wine from France.

Landing at Sarajevo airport today still means arriving on a NATO aircraft. But a change is in the air, as Lufthansa, Swiss Air and Air France are prepping to resume service.  I am sure it will startle all of us to have a “normal” flight once again where we do not have to sit on our helmets in case shots are fired from the ground.

The airport buildings remain mere shells ringed with sandbags. It is a fitting welcome to the visitor.

Coming out of the airport down the newly reopened main road and the first sight is the destroyed housing built for the Olympic athletes and media in 1984. There is little expectation these homes will be rebuilt.

The view doesn’t improve after that.

The road leads to Stup, another frontline suburb pulverized by the fighting. Landmines still lurk everywhere, some visible just off the road. On a jagged remain of a building wall is painted “Welcome to Sarajevo,” a cynical sign painted during the war’s first summer in 1992.

Turning right to head to downtown Sarajevo and the first war monument appears: the wreck of the building for Oslobodenje, the city’s largest newspaper. The building looks unusable, giving enough more testimony to the tenacity of the staff that daily produced the paper in the basement for most of the war.

The street is bumpy here, the result of uncountable rounds of ammunition and mortars shattering the concrete. Road crews have not yet been reborn in cease-fire Sarajevo.

Only after the battered road becomes Marshall Tito Boulevard, named after the late dictator who forged the old Yugoslavia, is there suddenly traffic. People streaming across the road, dashing to overcrowded street cars. Cars trying to create five lanes where only three exist.

This is not the Sarajevo of the winters of 1994, 1993 or 1992. Then a person on the street ran from snipers. No streetcars were working. The few cars that challenged gunfire weaved down whatever side of the road was clear. If any traffic sights functioned they were ignored.

Today traffic signals are obeyed and the cars traveling on Marshall Tito now move slowly past other war landmarks: the television building, battered by last summer’s rocket attack; the telephone and telegraph building, when U.N. headquarters was for the bulk of their stay; the Holiday Inn, where the media worked for most of the war winters; the dozens of apartment buildings whose perforated sides stand as silent sentries to downtown Sarajevo.

In downtown Sarajevo new garbage bins have appeared and residents have slowly begun using them instead of dumping garbage in the streets. The elimination of trash piles has made driving more confusing to those who knew directions by the third pile on the left.

By the time downtown and the coffee cafes are reached, visually things begin to open up. Sniper guards are being taken down. Glass is replacing plastic in windows. Flowers are being planted in patches where trees had been ripped out for firewood. Sandbags are almost all removed, even from in front of Benetton’s where they fitted the store’s trendy image.

About the only things not recovering are what once were the pride of the city, its 1984 Olympic facilities.

The Olympic Stadium, where opening and closing ceremonies were held, is a NATO storage area. A new cemetery filled with war dead is just outside its fence.

Only Jahorina Mountain, where women’s Alpine skiing was held and Americans Debbie Armstrong and Christine Cooper were first and second in giant slalom, still functions. Under the Dayton peace accord that area, as during the war, will remain part of Bosnian Serb territory, its ski runs open only to the elite there.

The Olympics generated $140 million in revenue for Sarajevo. The damaged to the city from the war is estimated in the billions.

As with other city institutions, like the national library and the parliament building, the coffee houses were among the first targets of snipers and mortars. Most were severely damaged.

But like Sarajevo’s citizens, the coffee houses adapted.

Some moved into bunker-like structures, where a survivalist mentality replaced the casual courtships and political debates of the past. Others went underground where the coffee was mixed with dirty water, the only water available, and chased down with marijuana.

Almost from the first shot of the war, coffee could only be found on the black market, at a cost of about $80 a pound. Getting clients to risk gunfire was equally challenging. One war cafe, Obala, blasted a hole in the wall opposite the sniper positions so that patrons could safely crawl to their tables.

The first time I crawled for coffee elevated the java to a point never neared before.  It made it so very appreciated.

But the point was drinking coffee in a cafe – regardless. Three frigid winters and bloody summers left the city reeling. Few wanted one of the city’s last multi-cultural institutions to succumb.

“Dangerous? Every day we thought we would die. But we were raised to think (the coffee house) was what our city was.  It was worth it,” Nedeljko Miscovic, 19, said to me.

Today, the city’s coffee cafes are full of polished wood, brass, marble and mirrors. Lights are high-intensity and hand made in Italy. Sound systems are fine tuned and imported from Japan and Germany.

Today Miscovic, a political science and business major, waits tables at the Imperijal, which opened last November. He sees his future over the steaming cups he serves.

“Many people who work in the presidency come here,” Miscovic said with a smile. “So I give them the freshest (brew) and they talk to me.”

The challenge for Miscovic’s customers is not finding a coffee cafe, but choosing which one to patronize. It is a challenge many gleefully accept.

“We were closed (under siege) for three years, we go for coffee now to get rid of that feeling, to go to life after that war,” Lejla Oruc, 25, said to me as she scanned the crowd at Imperijal.

“This is very beautiful and cultural. It makes us feel like we are back in Europe,” she said.

There are some differences from before the war. The thick brew used to be universally referred to as “Turkish coffee.” But since the bitter war it, as with almost everything else in Bosnia, is now nationalistically called “Bosnaska coffee” by the city’s Muslims and “Serbska coffee” among the city’s Serbs.

Many of the war coffee cafes, like Obala or SOS, are being shunned by patrons seemingly anxious to shed all memories of the conflict.

The competition among the new cafes is daunting.

Models wearing designer eyeglasses flock to the Cotton Club. The sleek set prefers Gallerija. At Kinema, first-run movies are shown on the wall and the latest rock music roars in the background. Philosophy students prefer Caffe Ramona, black marketers like Cafe Ella, politicians like the Imperijal.

The criteria varies per patron, but there are some basic guidelines: the place has to have a good feel to it. There has to be a combination of young and old people. There needs to be good music, good conversation and good seat locations.

“The education and style of the place is important, as important what people come to the place,” said Emina Kanlic, 23, sitting in the Imperijal. She likes the Imperijal because “very famous people come here” and it’s a good place to spot members of the opposite sex, another cafe ritual.

When it opened in November, Imperijal was the place to be. But my mid-February it was eased from the top spot by Estrada, much to the delight of owner Meduseljac Zujad-Zijo.

Zujad-Zijo said he spent about $147,000 to reopen Estrada. It now is a glistening monument to Italian design and Sarajevo confidence: its two-story all glass daringly faces the old front-line.

Before the war Estrada attracted writers, artists and musicians. Zujad-Zijo plans to get them all back. All the waiters wear Italian cut vests and an assortment of ornaments in their left ears. The doorman is a former policeman who makes sure the dreaded Financial Police do not pay a surprise visit seeking a payoff.

“This was the place before and it will be the place again,” Zujad-Zijo said. So far, the curious have proven him a prophet; it has been jammed. Behind the fun seeking is a serious touch.

“We see so many old faces again,” Ribar said. “It is reassuring because we were all certain at some point everyone would just be gone.”

Said Oruc: “Coffee without fear is the best in the world.”

BIO: Tom Squitieri wrote this about Sarajevo in 1995. He is a three-time winner each of the Overseas Press Club and White House Correspondents’ Association awards for his work as a war correspondent. He reported from all seven continents, always writing as a voice for the voiceless.


Photo from Wiki

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