Sarajevo: Rising from the Ruins
Against the odds, a new community takes shape
Sarajevo, October 2021.
The Social Cultural Centre is in an abandoned army barracks on the Sarajevo University campus. It's jarring to see the smart university facilities at the entrance replaced by rows of crumbling ruins so quickly. I start to think I've completely lost my way. But on the far side of the campus, one of these old buildings hads life and light.
Converting this space was a Herculean and truly international effort. Contributions and volunteers have come from Belgian charity Toestand, Hapësir Kulturora Uzina from Albania, Termokiss from Kosovo and SCS Tetovo from Northern Macedonia. Little by little, the rubbish and debris was cleared, the structure was bolstered, and just before I arrive the final touches have been applied to the roof, finally shored up by a determined local crew.
They don’t have permission to be here. Protracted exchanges with the university eventually result in a letter filled with effusive praise for their inspirational initiative, but which concludes by demanding they leave the site immediately. After all their work, the threat of eviction or demolition hangs constantly over them, though as one of the participants wryly observed, “things move slowly in Bosnia.”
I start to understand why I struggled to find information about the centre and its events online. Frustratingly, they have to keep a low profile and rely heavily on word of mouth.
When I arrive at around 10:30, just the core group is there, doing the unglamourous work cleaning and shifting furniture to get ready for the architecture workshop they have planned for the afternoon. I'm immediately offered a cigarette and a cup of homemade rakija. Both are ubiquitous in Sarajevo.
I talk with Alisa, one of the group's earliest members. It is to her that everyone seems to turn for instructions. "I was never supposed to be in charge," she says, sounding genuinely mystified, "but people kept asking me what to do." She's warm, smart and camera-shy. I'm struck instantly by her candour. It's a quality I find in everyone I meet here.
Alisa tells me she has witnessed a decline in opportunities and social spaces for young people in Sarajevo, exacerbated by the pandemic. Meanwhile, youth unemployment is estimated at 40%. No-one I speak to has any faith in government to provide opportunities or relief. The whole country seems hamstrung by the tense power-sharing system introduced by the Dayton Accords in 1995. Dunja, one of the visiting architects, describes it succinctly: "A good way to stop a war, but a terrible way to run a country."
It falls, then, to people like Alisa to try and provide those spaces. The group, as yet unnamed, was brought together years ago as part of an effort by international volunteers to make the Social Cultural Centre a reality. Some of the group knew each other from previous initiatives to expand the alternative music scene in the city. Now they're at the helm of a project aiming to bring community and hope to the young people of Sarajevo, particularly those who might feel marginalised in Bosnia's conservative society. "Your aspirations have grown," I remark. "My aspirations are for more than one person to turn up this afternoon," she replies. She's only half-joking.
How much optimism there is for the future depends on who you speak to. A couple of the youngest visitors speak brightly about improving relations with Bosnian Serbs among their generation and their hope that divides will heal over time. Dunja talks about her love for her home city, despite its flaws. She’s been lucky, she tells me, to have had the opportunity to travel and work abroad, but is always drawn back to Sarajevo and its people.
Some of the older members of the group, in contrast, seem burdened with pessimism. Fatalism, even. One breaks off a political discussion with a deep sigh and tells me he is past caring. Another describes Sarajevo despairingly as 'this shithole.'
Yet here they are, fighting for its future.
Alisa’s fears turned out to be unfounded: turnout is good for the afternoon’s event, despite the cold and wet weather. I slip out as the projection gets underway, warmed and humbled by the commitment of those pouring their hearts into this brilliant, precarious project, grappling not only with their generation's pessimism but their own.
Update: May 2022. After a busy few months, the group faced a setback when the university ordered the demolition of their space. Undaunted, they are preparing a new home for opening in June.