The Killing Ground

Sarajevo once held the sweetest Olympic Games in the author's memory, but now it stages bloodbaths
February 14, 1994

When we think it can't get any worse, it does: It gets insanely worse. And we reel again in shock, revulsion, despair and disbelief that this latest atrocity—and all the ones that went before it—could have happened in Sarajevo, where 10 years ago the sweetest Winter Olympics of them all took place. This time the madmen struck in the teeming marketplace, the same marketplace where in 1984 we journalists had sipped thick Turkish coffee each morning before the day's competition began. This time they killed 68 people and injured more than 200 others, with one bursting shell. This time they blew off more arms and legs, spilled more blood, crippled more innocent men, women and children, took more lives than they had before in any one day.

How does this brutal lunacy fit with what we remember of the high spirits and light hearts that ruled during the 13 days of the 1984 Games? It doesn't. It tries to turn our brightest memories into lies. Thank God, we know better. My own best memory of Sarajevo a decade ago is of a blizzard that attacked that ancient city in the first week of the Games. Crews of volunteers were desperately sweeping snow off the speed skating oval so the races could begin. It was hopeless, and after long labor the volunteers put down their brooms. They didn't sulk or complain. They began to play. Some took long, satisfying slides on the ice. Some began a game of tag. Some scampered onto the in-field and, like children, lay on their backs and made angels in the deepening snow.

Now, as another Winter Olympics is about to open, in Lillehammer, and the murder in Sarajevo goes on, I cannot help but ponder the fate of those happy sweepers. I assume, of course, that many of them have died in the war that has ravaged Sarajevo for 22 months and killed 10,000 there. But I also wonder: How many tag players have since killed their fellow tag players? How many angel makers have taken the lives of others who lay nearby in the snow that day?

This is the single most unbearable truth I face in trying to reconcile Sarajevo 1984, Olympic city of brotherly love, with Sarajevo 1994, human slaughterhouse: The same people who made those Games such a sweet occasion 10 years ago are killing each other today. If one angel-maker was a Serb and another a Muslim—as could easily have been the case during those friendly Olympics—then one may well have murdered the other by now. Serbs have sworn to carry out a policy of "ethnic cleansing"—genocide—against Muslims throughout the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, of which Sarajevo is the capital. Bosnian Muslims have retaliated, sometimes brutally. All this has occurred in the larger context of the nationalist and ethnic violence that was unleashed when Yugoslavia fractured into independent, warring pieces early in 1991.

And bad as the physical devastation has been, the moral devastation has been far worse. Zlatko Dizdarevic, a local newspaper publisher, writes in his book Sarajevo: A War Journal, "We look across the ashes of the city and past ruins we could never have imagined...and what drives home the extent of the destruction is the number of razed buildings that used to define the city's skyline. What is Sarajevo without the central railroad station, without the old post office, without the School of Forestry, the technical lyceum, and on and on.... But what does all that matter against the destroyed friendships, broken relationships, betrayals by former friends; against the total collapse of all human standards, of our previous understanding of the world and its relationships?"

Anyone who was at the Sarajevo Olympics is baffled, for there was no hint of ethnic hatred or betrayal in the euphoria of those 13 days in February 1984. I remember the opening ceremonies. The floor of Kosevo Stadium was swarming with 4,500 proud and joyful citizens of what was then Yugoslavia, six republics and two provinces that had functioned for 45 years as a unified nation. But the discord that had marked the region's history for centuries before the formation Yugoslavia is the root of the current conflict.

A cultural and political potpourri of factions, religions and nationalities was on display at those ceremonies: Serbs, Muslims, Bosnians, Croats, Macedonians and Albanians, among others. They were dancing together, singing their national anthem together, all dressed up together in folk costumes or bright Olympic volunteers' uniforms or silly outfits the colors of gumdrops. Together, they looked as if they had just arrived from a Balkan Oz.

The man chosen to carry the flag for Yugoslavia was Alpine skier Jure Franko, then 21, a Slovene who now speaks eight languages and is a ski commentator for Japanese TV. He recalls the ceremonies: "When the crowd saw the flag, they stood up and went mad, absolutely mad. It was indescribable. I remember having goose bumps all over my body that day. None of the tensions were present, certainly none that would lead you to think a war would ever break out among us. Having the Olympics in Sarajevo gave them special significance, because Sarajevo was the heart of Yugoslavia. Sarajevo was where the mix of all ethnic groups and nationalities had lived together through history."

Eight days later the Hag bearer became his country's greatest Olympic hero when he won the silver medal in the giant slalom—the only medal won by a Yugoslav in any Winter Olympics. Franko has never forgotten the day: "It was getting toward the end of the Games, and we had no medals. People had climbed the lift towers, and they were yelling and reaching to touch me as I rode by. There were thousands on the hill and at the finish. When I won my medal, people began jumping on me, kissing me, practically tearing me apart, and all I did was laugh and laugh. Because of my medal, a medal for Yugoslavia, it suddenly all made sense that the country had pulled together to put on these Games. It made sense then that we were feeling such harmony, such peace, such brotherhood as Yugoslavians."

And now? Franko speaks grimly: "As many positive feelings as I had then, that's how many negative feelings I have now. For me to know that the people who surrounded me with such love, the same people who surrounded all the athletes with such love, who wrapped the entire Olympic Village in all possible warm know that they are now trying to kill each other is basically unthinkable. Eighty, maybe 90 percent of the people dying now in Sarajevo have absolutely nothing to do with the war. They die when they go to get bread or a bucket of water. They are innocent."

I suppose innocent might apply to the Olympic venues too as they undergo assault after assault. Kosevo Stadium still stands, but it has been pocked with howitzer shells and snipers' bullets. There is a graveyard near the stadium's scarred walls, and I wonder how many of those opening-ceremony performers lie buried so near the ground they danced on. The speed skating track has been hit more than 20 times by heavy-artillery shells, and no one is playing tag there. Franko's triumph took place on Mount Bjelasnica, as did the feats of U.S. twins Phil and Steve Mahre (gold and silver, respectively, in the slalom) and that of the U.S.'s Bill Johnson (gold in the downhill).

Last summer the courses were scorched by weeks of combat, the ski lifts were burned, all the hotels and restaurants were torched. Mount Jahorina, where U.S. skiers Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper earned gold and silver, respectively, in the giant slalom, is now a major military installation occupied by Serb troops, the hotels there turned into barracks. The Zetra figure skating center, where Scott Hamilton, Katarina Witt and the elegant Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won Olympic championships, was flattened to rubble early in the fighting. Igman Plateau, site of all Nordic events, has been a key battleground for months: The cross-country ski trails have been chewed to smithereens by shells and Serb tank treads, and the ski jumps stand in ghostly silence.

The list of destruction goes on: The former Olympic Village, which became an apartment complex, has long been Sarajevo's deadliest killing ground because of its proximity to the airport: the bobsled and luge runs are a fortified Serb staging area from which artillery and sniper fire rain death down on the city; the main press center was reduced mostly to rubble during fierce street fighting early in the siege. All the hotels, restaurants and bars we frequented during those Games have been burned down or blown up.

The difference between then and now is perhaps more sharply defined for those who remember the Sarajevo Olympics as a time of shining personal triumph. Hamilton says, "For me those 13 days are always going to be my best 13 days. If I ever have grandchildren, those will be the 13 days I talk about, the 13 days they'll ask me about. But what's happening now doesn't make any sense to me. It's all so devastating, and you wonder about the people, the volunteers, who gave us so much then. To think some of those people are shooting children—it's just so hard to believe it all."

Nevertheless, for the athletes who succeeded in Sarajevo, their triumphs live on in a bright, bulletproof bubble of remembrance. Though the madmen continue to try, no one can murder their memories.

But nothing else in Sarajevo is safe from sudden death. And among the citizens the sense of horror and hopelessness runs deep. Branko Mikulic, 65, was president of the organizing committee for the 1984 Games, and he speaks with resignation: "When I took the leading role for the Olympics, I thought it would help Sarajevo develop its beauty and grace, and bring it into the 21st century. Now we know that will not happen. Sarajevo is a ruin, a concentration camp. And the world is not even acting to help. I cannot believe it—any of it." And Abdulah Sidran, a local poet and screenwriter, says, "During the Olympic Games, I hoped I would live for a hundred years. Now I just hope I will wake up tomorrow."

There is, of course, the question of how many tomorrows there will be before the slaughter ends. I asked Franko how long he thought it might be before Sarajevo is free of the killing, and he replied, "When there is no one left to murder."

This week, as the marketplace massacre proved, there were still plenty of people left to murder. And we can be pretty certain that the only angels being made in Sarajevo in this deadly winter are interred under the snow instead of imprinted on it. Franko is outraged not only by the brutality of the combatants in and around Sarajevo but also by the indifference—and the ingratitude—shown by other nations toward his country: "The world embraced our Olympics and took our people as messengers of peace. If Sarajevo and Yugoslavia were able to produce such good feelings for the entire world, I think the world should give something positive back. It should be able to produce something that would bring hope back to the people of Sarajevo. But the world has turned its back. The world, especially the political world, has failed us."

PHOTOMANNY MILLANFranko (right, with flag at '84 Games) is appalled by the world's indifference to the slaughter. PHOTOREUTERS[See caption above.] PHOTOJAVIER BAULUZ[See caption above.] PHOTOJAVIER BAULUZA UN military base occupies the rink where hockey was played and Hamilton skated to a gold medal. PHOTOMANNY MILLAN[See caption above.] TWO PHOTOSVIVIANE RIVIEREThe grim military now and joyous troops then at the men's downhill course. PHOTOVIVIANE RIVIERENear Kosevo Stadium, where flowers were given to Olympians, they are now placed on graves.