Bosnians Flip For Big-Top Show

Knife throwers, acrobats bring danger without injury to a war-torn city

In this August of political uncertainty in Bosnia, the circus has arrived in Sarajevo. The Embell Riva, a big traditional Italian circus, has set up its tent near Sarajevo's old zoo and brought elephants, tigers, zebras, camels, a llama, an ostrich, a rhinoceros, a yak, miniature ponies, a troop of acrobats, clowns, and the Berlucci family of circus performers.

It is the first time any circus has come to Sarajevo in five years, and the first time in 12 years the Embell Riva has come.

As tigers grumpily jump over each other's backs, an elephant slaps shaving cream on the head of someone pulled from the audience, and a strange procession of camels, llamas, and zebras dances in a circle under the whips of circus master Mario Berlucci.

It is a circus-in-the-round with a dirt floor. The tent is more than half full, with many Bosnians bringing children too young to have seen the circus the last time it came to town. Nearby, a neighborhood grocery-store worker says she would like to take her three children to the circus. But tickets cost $3, and she feels she cannot afford such a luxury on her $50 monthly salary.

Inside, an abashed group of Turkish peacekeeping soldiers holds tickets, as do several United States Embassy staffers, who ask each other if they're too old for the circus. Two Bosnian policemen in green uniforms watch from the back row.

A young woman comes out and rather acrobatically twirls several hoops to "Night After Night of Love." Ah, no, this is a circus for big kids too, a father leans over to tell his friend.

In the circus, there is danger, but no injury. A clown throws knives at someone pulled reluctantly from the audience, but the volunteer is never hit. A young acrobat lies under an elephant, but emerges smiling. Other acrobats release themselves into the air, but never hit ground. Young gymnasts backflip into the arms of a tower of girls but never fall.

Sarajevo, for the all the improvements since the war ended last November, is not a normal city. Jobs are scarce; doctors, nurses, disabled war veterans, and others haven't been paid in three months; all-night electricity blackouts are common; water comes on for four hours a day; the government quietly pursues opposition political parties with the tactics of a police state; telephones are tapped; a nationwide curfew sends all home by 11 p.m.

At night, occasional machine gun fire can be heard echoing off the surrounding hills. And during the day, men can be seen checking their weapons at the door of buildings where "no gun" signs are posted.

The brimming cafes disguise the fact that many people do not have jobs and are sitting someplace comfortable, away from home, to be with friends. Conversations with educated young people almost always turn to the topic of emigration.

The circus is a stark contrast - the bright colors, the jazzy trumpets, the cheerful obviousness of it all.

During intermission, a small boy in a red shirt stands in front of the ponies, his parents positioning him for a photo in the half darkness of the tent. In this time of uncertainty, the moment is filled with poignancy, a sense that this boy might not see a circus again soon. But it is also filled with hope because at least he is seeing one now.

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