Going sledding with the Serbs above Sarajevo

Five years after the war, Bosnia is still largely divided. But the lure of Olympic ski slopes draws some families across an ethnic boundary.

The invitation came as a surprise. A friend in Sarajevo, a teacher, and her two teenage sons wanted me to join them on their first trip to Jahorina since Bosnia's bitter 1992-1995 war as Yugoslavia broke apart.

It was also their first trip to Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb state-within-a-state in Bosnia.

"Come give us moral support," they urged. "We'll go sledding with the Serbs."

Nestled high above Sarajevo, Jahorina's sculpted slopes hosted the women's downhill and slalom competitions in the 1984 Winter Olympics and provided a picturesque backdrop for television announcers.

It's a lot quieter now. The Olympic flame was doused, and a few years later Sarajevo itself was burning. Bosnian Serbs dug in to Jahorina and other mountain villages surrounding the Bosnian capital and dropped shells and mortar rounds on people below: The same people who used to pack Jahorina's slopes, chalets, and restaurants every weekend.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic - indicted by the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague - set up shop in nearby Pale. He and his cronies would pop up to Jahorina for meetings of the Bosnian Serb parliament or to relax on the slopes. It was at the Heavenly Valley Hotel here that Bosnian Serbs rejected the 1993 Vance-Owen peace plan that even had the backing of Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Today, the guns, mines, and tanks are gone and the twisting, 12-mile road from Sarajevo is open to anyone who cares to make the drive. Almost no one does. Bosnian Muslims, or "Bosniaks," and Bosnian Croats feel understandably uncomfortable here.

But we decided to go anyway. A city bus leaves downtown Sarajevo every Saturday morning, as long as at least eight people show up. There were nine, so the bus left the station and climbed up the mountain, passing devastated buildings and incredible vistas of the city below. My friends grimly point out their top-floor apartment, which Serbs dropped several mortar rounds on in 1992.

Jahorina used to be this family's second home. Their Bosniak grandfather owned a chalet near the chairlifts; an uncle had another down the hill a ways.

Like the rest of the country, the town is a shadow of its former self. Most of the ski lifts and hotels are shut down. Serb refugees occupy two decaying hotels. Four-foot snowdrifts block the restaurant entrance of one; in front of the other, all the outdoor lights have been shattered. The only things that look new are the road signs, recently replaced with lettering in the Cyrillic alphabet. (Bosniaks and Croats use Latin letters.)

A couple of hundred people ski and snowboard on the open trails. Half appear to be soldiers, aid workers, and other officials from the shrinking international force sent here to make Bosnia a united, multiethnic nation. Virtually everyone else is Serbian, a good many from the Yugoslav cities of Belgrade and Novi Sad, both a hundred times farther away than Sarajevo.

But the sledding is good. The kids have a great time. We get a few intimidating glances from some beefy men with short-cropped hair, nothing more. While there is no sense of cameraderie, our brief visit and others like it suggest a tentative step, or slide, in this case, toward cooexistence and interaction as Bosnians begin a long recovery.

Later in the day we retreat into the restaurant of one of the few hotels that remain open. The picture window is cracked, and the tablecloths are faded. A gaunt, nervous-looking waitress shows us to a table next to a portable electric heater, the only heat in the place. We order tea. When the steaming cups arrive, the waitress asks meekly where the family is from. Her face lights up at the answer. "Sarajevo? The real Sarajevo! How wonderful," she says. "How is life there? I'm so happy you came."

Our bus leaves an hour later. It won't be back for another week.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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