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The Killing Ground
William Oscar Johnson
February 14, 1994
Sarajevo once held the sweetest Olympic Games in the author's memory, but now it stages bloodbaths
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February 14, 1994

The Killing Ground

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

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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 feelings...to 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."

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