Sarajevo revisited

Sarajevo has changed enormously since my last visit, with fewer and fewer SFOR soldiers in evidence around the city. The total number in Sarajevo has dwindled to three thousand units, according to SFOR spokesman Scott Lundy, adding, with his broadest grin, that ‘our countries’ are currently more interested in Afghanistan. The various NGOs have also scaled back their presence considerably, while the number of UN jeeps no longer exceeds that of taxis. It would seem that there is more internationalizing to be done elsewhere than in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the tram a man on crutches holds out a plastic bowl, a student has a healed burn in the middle of her face, a man displays the scars on his buttock and two deep holes in his back; in a coffee house another man, without legs, tucks into chocolate cake. Simultaneously, Sarajevo is being rebuilt: apartment block after apartment block is being repaired. And, what is particularly striking, many of the private houses dotting the hillsides above Sarajevo are being patched up as well. On Sundays the bullet holes are carefully plastered over, the individual occupants having evidently decided that peace is here to stay – so much so that a lot of families are busy erecting a welter of new houses: poorly finished, rudimentary structures constructed from large-size building blocks of burnt clay or concrete and rough concrete columns with gravel pockets and delicate eaves and startling extensions in even poorer materials. Houses which – however contradictory that may sound at first – because of their self-evidence and their autonomy and their universality and their heartlessness, have the same uncomplicated, unpretentious receptivity and approachability as the high-rise blocks in Novo Sarajevo. At the same time, new glass facades, yellow and green, are starting to appear in Sarajevo, mostly vertical but sometimes eye-catchingly canted. At present they still reflect the occasional ruin, but you know it won’t be long now before they are reflecting only their own kind. In the restored post office building, painted standard yellow, the new polished granite floor gleams up at you and whether you want to or not you are irked by the ease with which people forget, want to forget, are able to forget, and you are forcibly reminded that architecture is the great ally of forgetting. In addition, time and the grey of air pollution (thanks partly to its sheltered situation between the mountains, Sarajevo is one of the most polluted cities in Europe) are doing their work: even the ruins, even the most jagged shell holes are covered with the same, uniform layer of grey; bright green birch saplings sprout from the tops of war-torn buildings, the razor-edged shards of glass in the windows have been blown out or removed or at the very least covered by the same dark grey film. And I realize more clearly than ever that even a ruin can die. The last time I was in Sarajevo it had seemed as if the ruins would continue to cry out their terrible message to all eternity, but now it turns out that nature and the polluted city, in one synchronized movement, are busy coating them with the anaesthetizing film of time. I should have known better, of course, for memory dies too; even the most painful memory dies. The wounds fade, the number of ruins dwindles. The bright red resin injected, in eternal memory, into the surface craters left in the city’s pavements by exploding mortars and grenades, has been bleached to a pale pink by the strong sunlight or extruded by the continental frost. All it can bear witness to now is the futility of any attempt to monumentalize the ruin for eternity.

When I leave the city proper, climbing higher up, to the south or to the north, towards the Serbian positions that were strafed by NATO forces at the end of the war, I see that the bombed houses where the Serbians were holed up continue stand out against the sky as skeletons. They were just about the only buildings subjected to aerial bombing during this conflict. A building battered by bullets and grenades (the rotting corpse) looks quite different from a bombed building (the skeleton). The silhouettes of those skeletons possess an architectural purity: the self-assured purity that architecture can deal with. Sheep and cows and herdsmen and their children walk about there over the short green grass, right through the carefully marked out mine fields with their red stakes and yellow ribbons; a little further on, Norwegian specialists are at work removing mines.

I look at the sea containers that are still dug into the clay ridges and realize that they are the perfect exemplars of the notion of ‘niche’ that has haunted me for so long – the niche as architectural archetype, the niche from whose (illusory) protection one can pause and contemplate the stream, momentarily removed from that stream yet not repudiating it. (In the stream we are all driven along in the same direction – we are not able simply to wander freely, to roam.) The archetypical niche offers (the illusion of) protection below, above, beside, but above all behind, at your back, and in front there is the panoramic view – in this case, here in Sarajevo, the hilly landscape and down below, far away, at a distance that is as good as harmless, innocuous: the city. So sheltered, so protected, that they were able to shoot that city in the back undisturbed. Lock-up garages from which to shoot the city in the back.

Some time back, the mayor of Sarajevo launched a campaign entitled ‘Sarajevo, the European Jerusalem’, the idea being to invest Sarajevo with the image of the city where all manner of religions were able to coexist peacefully. Now the newly printed maps and posters are being quietly shuffled out of sight. The clumsy promotional plan for Sarajevo has been overtaken by events in the Middle East. Over a plate of finely chopped pickled cabbage, I watch the television suspended high up in the corner of the tiny eating-place with the low tables and chairs and the brown aluminium window frames. Looking at pictures of Jerusalem in Sarajevo. In Sarajevo bullet holes are being filled in. In Jerusalem flesh is being catapulted onto walls. Flesh projected, flesh as projectile, flesh as project. Projectare – living flesh. The flesh, the intestines, the shattered bones, the brains against the walls. Atta had the illusion of the security of his cockpit (back covered, clear view ahead), but even more of course the illusion of the security of his religion – the illusion of eternal life – an illusion still shared, of course, however favourably disposed we may be to his cause, by the Palestinian kamikaze. It only looks as if he is roaming, as if he is wandering; it only looks as if the Palestinian kamikaze has achieved the impossible, namely turning his body into a niche for himself so that he can blow himself up from within his own self: explode and implode at the same time. In fact, it is clear that the Palestinian kamikaze, too, (merely) blows himself up from within the niche of his religion.

Absolute belief is something I can still imagine: the belief that makes it possible to detonate explosives, to contemplate the fact that one’s own flesh will presently bespatter the walls of the room one is entering, exploding over the walls and in the faces of those present. But is it also possible to do this in the absence of that belief, in the full knowledge of the hopelessness, the uselessness and the pointlessness? Is it really possible to deliberately blow yourself up without any expectation of an afterlife? I can’t imagine this myself, I can only muse about it. And musing, I realize that we might do better to let the niche shatter, instead of wanting to build it, to invent it anew every time, so that we would finally be able to roam in earnest, wander in earnest, without any security, on the understanding that we would be able to do so without reverting to drifting along with the stream. (Or does that amount to exchanging one illusion for another?) The idea takes me by surprise and cuts me to the heart when I think of it, but it may be that we should even abandon architecture’s exceedingly modest task of constructing niches beside the stream … let the niche and thus the only conceivable architecture burst asunder and allow human beings to wander. In the space of a single week, two themes I regard as fundamental – the war-torn house as monument and the niche – have been shaken: Sarajevo.

Can a column doubt? Can architecture doubt?
Wim Cuyvers, Sarajevo 2002

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