From devastation to reconciliation

Semiha Borovac, mayor of Sarajevo, speaks about the siege of Sarajevo, the meaning of tolerance and reconciliation and the similarities and differences between Jerusalem and Sarajevo.

semiha borovac 88 (photo credit: )
semiha borovac 88
(photo credit: )
Twelve years ago, Sarajevo was a broken city, crawling out from 1,395 days of a cruel, relentless siege. Today, Sarajevo is moving rapidly toward recovery, as businesses rebuild, investors return and tourists rediscover the city. Semiha Borovac, mayor of Sarajevo, a Muslim and the first woman mayor in Sarajevo's history, is largely credited with the city's physical and emotional healing. Last week, Borovac was in Jerusalem for the 24th International Conference of Mayors. In an interview with In Jerusalem, Borovac, 51, is a strikingly attractive woman, with thick black hair, hazel eyes and olive skin, elegantly dressed and perfectly poised even as she returns, windblown and thirsty, from the mayors' tour through the Old City. A lawyer by profession, Borovac has had central, powerful positions in the municipal administration for decades. As some of her carefully worded responses show, she is an experienced politician, clearly in charge and yet kind, thoughtful and responsive. She speaks through an interpreter, Renata Raus, a Jew who speaks both Hebrew and English as well as Bosnian. During the war, Raus had been airlifted out of Sarajevo and brought to Israel by the Jewish Agency during the Bosnian war. But after four years, Raus returned to her family in Sarajevo. Borovac is sensitive to Raus, acknowledging that she is not merely translating but reliving her own traumatic experiences as a child in Sarajevo. She is patient when Raus struggles for a word, or for her own composure. Her voice is confident and persuasive, but with little emotion. It is the subtle changes in the tension in her face, the soft lines around her eyes, the set of her jaw that reveal how painful her experiences have been for her and her people. Sarajevo stands at the crossroads between Asia Minor and Central Europe, a location resulting in the greatest diversity anywhere in southeastern Europe and great potential for both cultural richness and cultural wars. Following World War II, the powers created the country of Yugoslavia, an aggregate of nation-states, roughly sewn together. Yet, Borovac stresses, Yugoslavia was no more divided than other countries - and by the 1980s, more than 40 percent of the marriages were inter-ethnic. And while the pre-war province of Bosnia was largely rural and poor, the capital city of Sarajevo was multicultural, cosmopolitan and sophisticated. But after Josef Tito, the all-powerful dictatorial head of Yugoslavia, died, the seams holding Yugoslavia began to unravel back into the small ethnic states. Power-hungry politicians, especially Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, used ethnic nationalism to manipulate differences and fan xenophobia and racism as they maneuvered to extend their control over all of the former Yugoslavia. The war began in 1991. In 1992, seeking to control Sarajevo and "cleanse" the city of its Muslim residents, Serbian-Christian rebels attacked and besieged the city. The Serbs conquered nearly half of the city and then, for 44 months, longer than the infamous siege of Stalingrad, the Serbs besieged the rest of the city and subjected it to shelling, sniper attacks and starvation. Over 13,000 civilians died, nearly 1,600 of them children. More than 50,000 were seriously injured. Almost no buildings were left unscathed, and much of the city was destroyed. The Olympic village was partly destroyed; the Olympic fields were turned into makeshift graveyards. It is when she talks about the war that her features harden, and the tension shows through. "There was no reason for this war," Borovac states definitively. "I don't think anyone can really tell you what the war was about, except that the enemy attacked Sarajevo to kill our multiculturalism. "Sarajevo was and is a multi-religious, multicultural city, and everyone who lived in Sarajevo enjoyed all the same rights and lived in peace with each other. The enemy never knew if they were targeting a Muslim, a Catholic, a Jew or a Pravoslavian. They didn't care whom they killed - they wanted to kill tolerance." She says she tries to forget but vividly remembers the day that the war came to Sarajevo - the sounds of the guns and the bombs, the confusion, the fear. From that day on, for 44 months, Borovac lived every day not knowing if she, her two daughters, her husband or anyone else would survive. She lived just past the Serbian-controlled area; the basement of her home became a bunker. "I sent my children to school every day because that is how normal children have to live, even though I knew they were risking their lives. I went to work every day, even though I knew I was risking my own life. "In the middle of the insanity, normalcy seemed to be the only thing that could save us. And we knew that that was the only way to protect what we most believe in - the multicultural, multi-religious tolerance that we cherish. You can never know your own strength until you actually must be strong in order to survive." And yet, as she and all of Sarajevo suffered, the world refused to intervene. The flicker of hardness again. "Yes, that is difficult to understand, to explain. The world responded too slowly, maybe because it takes a long time for everything to become clear." Then, a mayor aware of her city's desperate need for foreign aid, she adds, "And we thank the United States very much." Borovac says that despite the horrors, most of Sarajevo's residents remained in the city. "We lived together and helped each other, no matter what our culture or religion, and that was our victory. In some ways, the war made us even stronger." But the city was devastated. "We were left with no money, no work because factories and businesses had been destroyed, no tax base and thousands of displaced refugees who crowded into Sarajevo. But now, only 15 years later, we have reconstructed and rebuilt most of the city. And we are building monuments - attesting to our own strength and to honor the thousands who died." Bosnia-Herzegovina is not a member of the European Union, so it is not entitled to structural funds. Borovac does say that the city is benefiting from donations, both from states and foundations, but while attending the Mayors Conference made an impassioned plea for mayors throughout the world to encourage their cities and their countries to contribute. She also notes that businesses are coming back, as is foreign investment, especially from neighboring Slovenia, Croatia and Austria. With a broad, proud smile she notes that Sarajevo was recently listed by "Lonely Planet" as the 43rd most desirable city to live in and visit in the entire world. Yet she also readily acknowledges that Sarajevo has a very long way to go. "There is a tremendous need for social assistance, both financial and psychological. There are many people who are poor, who do not have enough to eat. And we really do not have enough to help everyone. People and NGOs from around the world have donated to civil organizations that help these people and have built institutions such as kindergartens and schools." And the trauma remains. "Every one in Sarajevo was traumatized. We suffer wounds that you can see only after a decade or more. My children were young then, today I'm already a grandmother, but I remember the sounds of the shooting, the fear. "Our children grew up before their time. Somehow, they seemed to understand the situation better. Perhaps children understand better than adults that there is no justice. "But, despite everything, our children do not hate. They will never forget what happened to us, but they do not hate. And now we are all living together again, and growing strong. We need each other." She reveals that she is particularly concerned about the victims of the mass rape that became an integral part of the Serbs' war against Bosnia. While rape has always been a part of war, rarely was rape ever used so deliberately as a tool of subjugation and annihilation. The rape campaign was particularly brutal in the Grbavica region of the city, which was held by the Serbs. "We must support these women. Some of them still have not yet come forward to tell their stories and they are suffering alone, silently. They will never be the same, but we must help them." Borovac is thankful for the donations and treatments offered by non-governmental and feminist organizations from throughout the world, but says that that is not enough. She is one of the leaders of a move toward legislation that would provide state-sponsored treatments and benefits for these women, and has publicly called for the countries of Serbia and Montenegro to take responsibility for their leaders' crimes. Recently, Milosevic died in his cell in The Hague, where he was being tried by the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, for crimes against humanity. Borovac sighs. "It would have been better if he had lived, to receive his punishment. For the families of the victims, there would be closure. There are other criminals, too, and we trust the court in The Hague. We need justice and truth to heal. Each of us has his or her own story, and the process at The Hague confirms that our stories our true. "This justice is very important for the next generation." She says that the fact that she is a Muslim and a woman has little to do with her position as a mayor. "I don't think people care about this. Our needs are very great. The voters care if I can do the job, if I have the experience, knowledge and ability to solve our problems." Although she had long been involved in municipal and regional politics, she says that she decided to go into office, because "women are more rational. And I realized that unless we move to the front of the stage, we will not be able to influence the future." She concludes by saying that she sees similarities between Jerusalem and Sarajevo. "I see the different religions here, the different skin colors, the different clothing. And it seems to me that everyone feels comfortable here. People on the streets seem happy and give me a feeling that I would like to return. I will return." As a Muslim, was she comfortable here? She seems oblivious to, or unwilling to comment on, the question. "Why do you ask me this? I feel very good here, but so many people from Israel are asking me how I, a Muslim, feel. Why should I not feel good? Being a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim or a Pravoslavian - what does it matter? If you were to come to Sarajevo, no one would ask you how you feel as a Jew. "Our differences should be something we value, something that enriches us. We should embrace our differences. If you can do that, as we are, then you will find peace."