Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On "Miss Sarajevo"

Sarajevo is a city that is historically famous not only for hosting the 1984 Olympic Winter Games, but also for its traditional cultural and religious diversity. There aren't many places in the world where adherents of Islam, Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Judaism have coexisted for centuries. Thanks to its its long and rich history of religious diversity, Sarajevo has often been called the "Jerusalem of Europe".

Scene from the documentary
Miss Sarajevo
And, yet, it's not too far in the past that this leading social, political and cultural center of the current Bosnia and Herzegovina, was entangled from 1992 to 1996 in the Bosnian War.

The Siege of Sarajevo, the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, resulted in large scale destruction as thousands of Sarajevans lost their lives as a result of the constant bombarding and sniper shooting at civilians by Serb forces, whose goal was the creation of a new Serbian State of Republika Srpska that would include a portion of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Nearly 12,000 people lost their lives during the Siege of Sarajevo, including over 1,500 children. Additionally, 56,000 people were wounded, including nearly 15,000 children.

Thanks to the passing of time, today, Sarajevo has become one of the fastest developing cities in southeastern Europe. And, yet, I was reminded recently, thanks to hearing Scott Simon's homily entitled "Bosnia Remembers When the World Looked Away" on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday, last Friday (April 5) marked the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian War.

"The world saw the 'ethnic cleansing' of Muslims and mixed-ethnic people in vivid color. But Europeans looked and saw the ghosts of World War I. Americans saw the ghosts of Vietnam. We changed channels," said Simon, during his NPR commentary.

U2's "Miss Sarajevo" played in the background at the conclusion of Simon's commentary. Hearing this somber tune piqued my interest. I searched the Internet to find a video of the song and to further read about its background and use in the Bill Carter documentary film Miss Sarajevo.

In the words of U2's Bono, he said: "The camera follows the organizers through the tunnels and cellars of the city, giving a unique insight into life during a modern war, where civilians are the targets. The film captures the dark humour of the besieged Sarajevans, their stubborn refusal to be demoralized and suggests that surrealism and Dadaism are the appropriate responses to fanaticism."

Carter's goal was to expose people to the individuals living through the war. "The war is just a backdrop, it could be any war," he said. "The point is the vitality of the human spirit to survive, (to) laugh, to love, and to move on, that is something we will be addressing always."

The song "Miss Sarajevo" not only protested the war in Bosnia. It also criticized the international community for its inability to stop the war or help those who were affected by it.

Bono went on to say that he felt the lyrics to the U2 song, "Miss Sarajevo", reflected what the people of Sarajevo were feeling at the time. It is sung with passion and conviction, and it also includes a solo by the great Italian opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti. The song's lyrics include:

... Is there a time to walk for cover
A time for kiss and tell
Is there a time for different colors
Different names you find it hard to spell

Is there a time for first communion
A time for East 17
Is there a time to turn to Mecca
Is there a time to be a beauty queen. ...

"Over 44 months of war, Sarajevans refused the appeals of governments and prestigious international groups to divide their country into ethnic enclaves," said Simon, at the conclusion of his NPR commentary. "I remember a Bosnian government minister saying, 'After all these centuries trying to build civilization, are we to go back to being tribes?' ... While the world looked away from them, Sarajevans dug a tunnel. They stood up for civilization."

And so, on an autumn night in 1995 in Modena, Italy, with Bono and the other members of U2 beside him, Pavarotti sang with a raw emotion:

Dici che il fiume
Trova la via al mare
E come il fiume
Giungerai a me
Oltre i confini
E le terre assetate
Dici che come il fiume
Come il fiume...
L'amore giungerá
E non so piú pregare
E nell'amore non so piú sperare
E quell'amore non so piú aspettare

As I reflect upon this dark and somber period with the help of perspective, thanks to U2 and Scott Simon, one thing seems certain: Sarajevans indeed stood up for civilization.

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