Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sarajevo's Survivors: A Tale of Two Cities

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina --The single room of Nada Lisse's apartment reeks of spoiled cabbage and unwashed flesh. There is no money to buy soap and the pot of old vegetables has to last until the next day's lunch.


It is mid-September, but the widow, 71, is already paralyzed by dread of the coming winter.


"It was on that couch in the corner that Emina froze to death last winter," the old woman says of her neighbor's sister who had sought refuge from worse cold one story above.


"We thought she was sick, but when we got her to the hospital the doctors told us she was dead."


The aching poverty afflicting Lisse contrasts brutally with the bounty on display at public markets throughout the city and with the hopeful outlook younger Sarajevans have developed as signs of normal life have returned. Here, the crowded cafes and brisk trade in coveted goods -- like liquor and passes to travel -- might create an impression of a city that has weathered the worst of war's hardships.


But Sarajevo, in reality, has become a place of haves and haves-not. It is a city where black marketeers control everything from food to freedom. In Sarajevo, as in the corruption-ridden postwar Vienna, Austria, of Graham Greene's "The Third Man," everything -- even survival -- has its price.


Life for most Sarajevans is an existence as grim as Lisse's -- endless days spent staring out broken windows at smoldering dumpsters or aimlessly plodding through rubble-strewn streets. Many endure an eternity from handout to handout, with no prospects for employment and all hope for relief dashed.


But for those on the dealing end of the ubiquitous black markets, the dreariness can be tempered by luxuries acquired with ill-gotten gains.


Fortunes amassed by trading across the front lines have bought fast cars that were smuggled in during the five-month period when one road into Sarajevo was open; black-market gasoline can be had for about $30 a gallon through a franchise controlled by the Ukrainian contingent of the UN peacekeeping force.


The army and, thereby, the government, control most aid and commerce in Sarajevo through a labyrinthine system of licensing, franchises and favors.


Fuad Colpa owns what was one of Sarajevo's most popular businesses before the war: the Bazeni restaurant built into the stone embankment at a scenic curve of the Miljacka River.


Colpa explains that the only way to reopen his business when the worst of the shelling stopped in February was to secure a "priority use" designation from the government for water, electricity and other on-again, off-again utilities.


In exchange for the rating intended for hospitals, bakeries and a number of other vital facilities, Colpa pays the local government a special tax -- some might call it a kickback -- that amounts to about $4,000 per month.


Atop the outright payments received for doling out priority ratings to lucrative businesses like Colpa's, the government takes one-third of the value of everything brought into the city through the only access available: a not-so-secret tunnel under Sarajevo's UN-controlled airport.


The tunnel, which goes from the Bosnian-Serb encircled city to another Muslim-government held area beyond, was built last year by the army and remains under strict military control.


"The army gets 33 percent of everything they bring through the tunnel, which is a lot now that the Blue Route is closed," confirms a humanitarian aid official, referring to the sole commercial road into this city of 380,000 people that was cinched off by Serb rebels in late July.


Shipments of coffee, sugar, beer and other supplies ordered by enterprises like Bazeni's move at the convenience of the army, which often needs to clear the narrow tunnel to transport troops for the ongoing battles along more than 1,000 miles of front line.