MISS SARAJEVO: AS LONG AS THERE IS WAR, YOU ARE ONLY FEEDING THE GRAVEYARD»
Text + Photography by Stefan Jermann
How two sisters, an American journalist and an Irish rock band brought more attention to the war in Bosnia and the situation in Sarajevo than any other media outlet at that time.
During a time when the World Wide Web, viral YouTube videos and mobile devices were out of this world, it was hard to imagine what was really happening in Sarajevo during the siege. There were crowds of international journalists stationed at the Holiday Inn and a few few photographers who stayed or flew in to document the massive faces of war. Then, there was this young journalist by the name of Bill Carter. A young fellow, maybe somewhat looking for a purpose in his life. Bill signed up with an organization called “serious road trip” that supplies food and the most necessary things to places where ordinary aid organizations would not dare to go. The team was a mix of idealists, punks and outsiders. Eventually Bill ended up in Sarajevo.
His office was in close proximity to the Holiday Inn, two modernist skyscrapers, glass from top to ground. The first tower had been completely destroyed by Serbian snipers — or as the locals would refer to them as »Chetniks«*, Bill was located in the tower behind. The place was occupied by aid organizations, military and for instance also French Special Forces who were shooting Serbian snipers stationed on the hillside. Jim Marshall, a Scottish longtime resident of Sarajevo and good friends with Bill remembers the time in the tower: “There were legendary parties at this place while the electricity went on and off. Otherwise there was just routine daily madness. Once I remember how they dragged a French sniper down through the debris on the stairs, he wasn’t breathing anymore, got wiped out by the other side…”
Most residents who made it out of Sarajevo early enough, had left. The others either wanted to stay, had no money to leave or nowhere to go. There were very few folks, except for the media who entered this valley of “hell”. But this American guy wasn’t in it for the story; he wanted to help and soon realized that the only way he was able to contribute to stalling this madness was by his imagery and somehow telling the story.
Fast-forwarding: While strolling the streets of Sarajevo, I literally gaze at the traces of the siege, lots of war torn buildings, bullet holes everywhere. Crossing the bridge where the first two people were killed, crossing the street where the widely reported story coined as “Romeo and Juliet” — a young and beautiful couple passing the sidewalk, shot by snipers in an instant, occurred. They died embracing each other, the bodies were left there on the street for weeks or even months, cause it was too dangerous to recover them. I couldn’t help but to “déjà vu" all those images again and again in my head. I always, for some reason had this U2 song with a guest appearance by Luciano Pavarotti in my head. Maybe because I went thru a tough break up a couple a years ago, and maybe this song saved my life. But mostly because I remembered those two girls in the video, jumping thru a hole in the wall, looking back at the camera one last time and then they both run in slow motion. They run for their lives — crossing “sniper alley” – a large avenue, exposed to the snipers and deadly if you chose the wrong moment — everything that moved got shot. As tragic as the story was, the imagery was beautifully shot, it had an energy that just perfectly fit this song: “Miss Sarajevo”.
I couldn’t help it, but I wanted to find out more. What was behind this story – was it all an orchestrated set up, for one of the most acclaimed rock bands in the world to gain just a bit more attention for their good-doings beside the music? And was Bill Carter and the sisters just a myth, called to life by a great ghostwriter? I was about to find out and I asked our guide Jim about Bill and the sisters: “Oh Bill is a good friend of mine, and yes I know the sisters, I can put you in touch.” I sent Selma an email, asking to meet but she was hesitant and said that her sister Lejla is much more keen and knows how to talk to the media. So we emailed and made an appointment at this bar called “Meeting point” that hugely displays banners and posters of an American whisky brand out of Tennessee. As I wait for Lejla, I wonder if I’d recognize the girl that looked quite nerdy in the video sequence, with glasses way too large. So nerdy in fact, you just wanted to cuddle her. I go to the meeting point a bit early and what the heck, I order a cup of this »Tennessee« stuff. A couple of minutes later, an attractive young lady with a great smile and sparkling eyes greets and hugs me. Wow, am I thinking: she really exists and she is neither jaded by the horrors of war, nor would she abide talking about her story. A couple of minutes Selma also joins us, her initial doubts about the meeting seem to have evaporated.
How did you end up in the movie “Miss Sarajevo” that was directed by Bill Carter?
Bill just appeared one day and then he asked us if he could take a picture as we cross “sniper alley”. We basically got so pissed off at this guy trying to get a great shot while we risk our lives. We told him that we’d do it if he runs together with us first (Lejla laughs). And you know: Bill ran with us and we were so impressed. That’s when this friendship all started. I remember that after we invited him to our house and my mother made a cake out of bread for all of us. Everybody had very little to eat during war, there were no problems of obesity (we all laugh). Then, we hadn’t seen Bill in a few days and got worried a bit, all of a sudden; he knocks on the door with a bag in his hands. Inside was an entire chicken for our family. It was an incredible moment. We barely had any food and then this guy shows up with meat, something that was rare and fed us for about a week. It was a feast. After that, Bill started filming and taking pictures. It felt completely natural to us, we never had the impression that we were being filmed in this sense.
Do you remember the first day when the war started?
The first day of war actually lasted for a few days (laughs). My mom told us that there were barricades on the streets, demonstrations, and loud music…. Then the snipers killed those two women marching peacefully and that’s where it started.
What was the deal with U2, Sarajevo and you guys?
Around 1993 U2 was playing with the idea of coming to play in Sarajevo. Of course that would have been too risky and logistically impossible, cause it was all a war zone. Bono was interested in the topic, but it was unclear on how that help could be spread to a huge mass. Bill basically sent Bono a fax, telling him that one possibility was to do live feeds from Sarajevo while the show was happening. In 1993, the last show of the U2 world tour happened and we had a live appearance where we had a couple of minutes to get our message across. I remember saying that: “As long as there is war, you are only feeding the graveyard.” It was absolutely great that Bill as the initiator of the live feeds gave us a window to the outside world that we could communicate to.
This might sound strange, but let me ask you, was there anything that was better during the war, as opposed to now?
Before the war, people were living an ordinary life. During the war, people were happy to be alive and seemed to also live life to the fullest, at times. After the war ended, people got back to their ordinary slow pace….
I think one of the major problems after the war was that there was no victory to be celebrated. The war was over, but nothing happened in this sense, no acknowledgment, no clear victory and of course everything was in ruins and destroyed.
What was the first thing you did after the war?
I went for a month and a half to Amsterdam, I played music in this band that I got and I just did all the things that we couldn’t do during the war. Stuff that crazy 16 year olds do in Amsterdam, you know…
How do you see the future of Sarajevo and the new generation making a stand?
Sarajevo has huge potential. The wounds are still being healed, despite the fact that people don’t talk about the war, doesn’t mean it has been forgotten. There is a young generation that wants to change and sees opportunities, and then there are the others that just complain. One of the main miseries is that after the war, we didn’t have this rebuilding of the country, we didn’t get a boost in the economy or entrepreneurship, things just sort of stalled and that is really a shame. Now things are slowly changing, Bosnians abroad are coming back with skills and this is one of the big hopes for our economy.
In any case, during the Sarajevo Film Festival the spirits are great and the city changes completely. We want people to experience a beautiful and positive Sarajevo we want people to know that this is an amazing place
After our talk I ask Selma and Lejla about this scene in the movie where you see the hole in the wall, sort of the opening to the outside world. We jump into Selma’s car and all drive to Marijin Dvor where their parents still live. We enter a small hallway and then there is a tiny courtyard and this wall that has been fixed up a bit and and one can still spot where the hole used to be. Selma is pointing at the hole:” This was our gate to the world during the war:” I look to my right and see two smart and educated women, and, I look to my left, at this wall and I see the film sequence of Bill Carter, two girls stepping thru that hole, starting to run, smiling back one more time at the camera and then they run in slow motion.
*The term »Chetnik« is a reference to a soldier who historically fought for the Serbian and Yugoslav king and the former kingdom of Yugoslavia. They had a reputation of brutal and unfair fighting, killing and destroying everything from the elderly to children.
Bill carter is an American journalist who later on released the documentary movie "Miss Sarajevo" and published the internationally acclaimed book "Fools Rush In" (Schaffner Press Inc. // 978-0982433294 ) where he describes his time in Sarajevo.