Was Sarajevo 1997 Start of “Global Citizen” Consciousness?

By, Ambassador Muhamed (Mo) Sacirbey

Photo Credit: Zoo Station

Art and music were integral part of defense and global solidarity that helped Sarajevo survive the longest modern siege of a European capital. From around the globe, artists as U2 frequently provided moral support, urged humanitarian help and echoed calls to help. They reminded of a responsibility. The war on Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH) was as much an aggression upon diversity as it was a campaign against a country and an effort at ethnic cleansing. The start of the war was punctuated by not only mass killings but the fire bombing of Sarajevo’s historic library, cultural features as well as houses of worship and anything that memorialized a long history of diversity and tolerance. Sarajevo became the symbol of the will to defend but also counter the assault upon openness. As much as the meager weapons of war and ingenuity of citizen-defenders, the assault and siege was resisted by exhibitions of art, film and music. It was only fitting that the survival of Bosnia would be celebrated with music, and it was exclamation point of one big show that would bring together the world, the culture and diversity that was Sarajevo’s salvation. That is where U2 came in again, along with local performers and thousands of others from around the region, indeed the world who came to celebrate a new global consciousness along with the music.

Luciano Pavarotti & “War Child”:

Bono and I had met at Pavarotti’s benefit concert in Modena, Italy, (Luciano’s hometown) on behalf of the children of BiH. Luciano was as much humanitarian and gracious host as great tenor and public personality. “War Child” had begun its life as a global NGO that would enlist the personality, empathy as well as art of musicians to provide aid for the children of BiH. (As BiH’s first Ambassador to the UN I had the opportunity and honor to sign War Child’s first charter that would empower it to work in Bosnia, its first mission as a new NGO anywhere.) A school and music center would be dedicated to Luciano Pavarotti in 1998 but in the summer of 1995 when the war still raged the great artist was host to a global array of stars and dignitaries, (over several annual concerts including Bono, The Edge, Sting, Natalie Cole, Mariah Carey, Eurythmics, Stevie Wonder, Jon Bon Jovi, Elton John, Meatloaf, Eric Clapton, Brian Eno, Neville Brothers and Princes Diana among too many to properly acknowledge.) The proceeds of the night long event were part of the fundraising for War Child and the children of BiH, including a new music center. (Brian Eno and wife committed much of their time and energy to establish the school and music center in the divided city of Mostar that would eventually bear Pavarotti’s name.)  As memorable as the sentiments and music dedicated to the long besieged city and what it represented, Pavarotti, Bono, Eno and the others performed a special song dedicated to courage, ingenuity and beauty of the city, particularly its people, “Miss Sarajevo” (They had recorded as artists, “Passengers”).

If History was not with Sarajevo, the Music Was:

Bono invited me to his home in Ireland, and, after their hospitality, he and wife Ali came to BiH as my guests in the immediate aftermath and optimism of the Dayton/Paris Accords. Both of us understood including I as signatory that the Dayton Accords were far from ideal. In fact it was a flawed peace, better than continued war, but a return to normalcy for the ordinary person and an opportunity to salvage a real peace. Assistance, moral and otherwise, from those with the will and capacity could help over time make tolerance and diversity the victor. After our then 1996 new year’s celebration Bono committed to bring U2 to BiH on their next scheduled tour to highlight Sarajevo’s symbolic global role and what we all had hoped would be a new era of broader world peace. Bono often spoke of his memories of the ebullient mood when the Berlin Wall was torn down by the hands of Europe’s next generation and the coming down of the Apartheid state in South Africa. The nationalist assault upon BiH and the siege of Sarajevo was a sober reminder that neither peace nor a new global consciousness were simply assured by time and a flow events that may have appeared as aligned with a more harmonious flow to history.

“With or Without You”

Getting U2 to Sarajevo during the “Pop Tour” was much easier said than done, and it would not be cheap. Each staging of a U2 show would cost around $1.5 million and travel to Sarajevo soon after the conflict would not only pose logistics challenges but some feared risk to the support team. As the band occupied a K-Mart in lower Manhattan to launch publicity for the PopMart Tour we (including Paul McGuinness, U2’s then Manager, capable and most cognizant of the moment and effort) penciled in September 23, 1997.  U2 committed to a show that would break-even financially, (thus ticket prices would be modest particularly in view of the limited resources of BiH residents.)  Any excess revenues would be donated to BiH charities while U2 agreed to cover up-front costs, mostly.  Nonetheless, last minute big money offers from a Swiss city for U2 to play on the same date there became a temptation to defer the Sarajevo concert indefinitely along with the ever greater demands and precedents needed to pull together the show. Even flying in the band members and immediate support team hit a last minute hitch which we would overcome at last minute by securing final NATO flight clearance as I accompanied the band on their plane into Sarajevo.

The preparations on the ground in Sarajevo were no less demanding. In fact we wanted to make certain that fans from the region, around Europe and indeed global citizens would have the opportunity to come for the concert and celebration. The Sarajevo Film Festival team under its Director Miro Purivatra coordinated promotions and sales. Security team coordination was a bit of NATO, bit of BiH police and with glue from my improvising bodyguard, Bega. The concert was unprecedented for Sarajevo. Many believed it was a false rumor as so much hope had been hyped-up with similar announcements of events never carried through. So soon after such a brutal conflict it all made the task appear more insurmountable but then, most were energized to restore Sarajevo, its global symbolism of a city representing not only co-existence but the mutual benefits of a diverse cosmos.

Music & Stage as a Martketplace of Ideas?

Part of the challenge was not only the logistics and putting on a rock-and-roll show but helping it define the peace, what we hoped would be an inclusive future. It was my initiative to approach the Chief Muslim Cleric of BiH, “Reis Ulema” Mustafa Ceric, to have an Islamic religious choir, similar to Gospel choirs in the US, to be part of the show. This would be the first time, perhaps unfortunately not matched since then, for Islam and rock to share the stage. This to project that all was welcome in a BiH open again as a marketplace of ideas with a fertile future to explore culture, music and art less defined by labels or identity and more valued for its service on behalf of all men and women. Along with the Islamic choir, one opening act or local band was voted upon by radio audiences while I selected another on basis of the ethnic diversity and edgy punk rock that it represented.

The night of the show was blessed with a beautiful autumn evening and a crowd of over 60,000, and many more just outside the stadium looking to just be part of the atmosphere. Only years earlier the Stadium had hosted the Winter Olympics. Months earlier it had by necessity been a vast cemetery for Sarajevo’s defenders and citizens who suffered through 42 months plus of siege, deprivation and indiscriminate shelling. It was a sober reminder of the best and worst possible. The audience came in from around the globe, as well as a large contingent of soldiers from around Europe and the US serving as a Dayton Accords peace implementation force. Buses rolled in from neighboring countries, Slovenia and Croatia to Montenegro and Serbia that may have been viewed as enemies only a short time earlier. Young men and women from the other side of BiH, “Republika Srpska”, that had sought to secede came to what was their capital now as well, and were welcomed. By the end of the night, when I received final reports, there were no incidents of ethnic violence, religious slurs or serious arrests or violence noted, except for two young men who got into a fist fight over the affections of a young women.

Global Citizens Add their Voice:

Except for Bono periodically losing his voice, the concert was exceptional mostly for its hope caught in time warp. While Brian Eno was ready to stand in for U2’s hoarse lead singer, I suggested to Bono that he ask the crowd to sing for him. We all rose on the tidal waves of mutual harmony as the concert ended and Bono and Band became as much partners as stage acts.  Larry Mullen, U2’s drummer,  has been quoted: “an experience I will never forget for the rest of my life, and if I had to spend 20 years in the band just to play that show, and have done that, I think it would have been worthwhile.”

The opening acts and vision of the program were as integral to its conception. The Sarajevo punk band, sought not to become an afterthought with lead singer “mooning” the stadium. Perhaps the most relevant message lost to today’s world of divisions and identity politics is the reception given to the “Islamic Choir.” Many were skeptical of the choir on a rock stage. As Paul McGuinness and I from back stage stared out at the crowd I could sense his apprehension as the traditionally clothed members of the Islamic choir neatly lined the stage and began a melody with only a percussion drum to keep rhythm. Within a few seconds, from where EU soldiers had been seated to the side of the stage, some whistles perhaps as to jeer something unexpected to them could be heard. Almost as soon as the whistles from above, the young fans in the mosh pit right in front of the stage picked up the rhythm on stage and started to clap and sway in unison with the choir. The young Bosnians understood that this choir was a reflection of the past, the culture and the future of a diverse Sarajevo where all was possible. As the whiff of weed from the mosh pit streamed through Paul and mine nostrils, the tear in his eyes let me know that he got it!

Streets with Names but no Labels

The show was not just on stage. Young girls in hijab, (not that common in Sarajevo among even Muslim women,)  rubbed shoulders with men hoisting beers. Respect was the common theme. Long after the stadium turned off its lights, the “Boys” (Bono, The Edge, Larry Mullen, Adam Clayton as nicknamed by their support team), Brian, Paul and I wandered the streets of Sarajevo. The global media had come in large numbers to cover the concert, (and BBC as well as BiH TV had broadcast the show for those who could not be in the stadium in person). The determination and courage of journalists, as Christiane Amanpour, Roy Gutman, Jim Clancy and too many to all name here had spent long days covering the war not allowing the voice of those targeted to be extinguished. Some journalists ended their life here as they also became targets. They had not permitted Sarajevo and BiH to be cut off from the world even when physically surrounded. Sarajevo became the world, and Bosnians/Herzegovinians were understood as global citizens. It was right that some of these journalists were in Sarajevo to celebrate survival as they had witnessed the resistance on the edge of darkness. Perhaps though the most memorable moment of that long walk around the city was a young man who announced himself enthusiastically as having come from Montenegro, a country only months earlier seen as being “on the other side.” He was undoubtedly a fan but also probably saw himself as an emissary of peace empowered by the event and stage that Sarajevo had become. We asked him for his name but did not identify ethnicity, religion or politics associated with the label but saw him for what he wanted to be, a brand for peace.

We, I, had more plans, or perhaps more accurately visions to help BiH transcend the war and become a global catalyst for a new era in relations between peoples and cultures. We hosted the “warring factions” of Northern Ireland to help further the momentum of the “Good Friday Agreement.” Sarajevo welcomed Israeli and Palestinian guests. Conferences of faith leaders sought to return religion as a tool of peace and peacemaking and not a weapon of war and nationalists. Unfortunately the hope and momentum that many agreed reached a zenith that night in Sarajevo has proven more fleeting than lasting. BiH has been let down by international leaders more inclined to bury rather than resurrect and national leaders ever more caught in the spiral of “us” and “they,” (to paraphrase Pink Floyd).

(See: Link to Diplomat Artist: “Diplomatic Bluff to Break the Longest Modern Siege” )

The Walls Grow like Weeds of Cultivated Division:

Being a global citizen does not mean being any less the member of any faith or patriot of any state. To the contrary, as borders nor walls can block neither terror nor goodwill, disease or prosperity, the internet or hate, being a global citizen is part of being a patriot. The UN sponsored Global Citizen celebration has now been observed in New York over the last decade. Two decades earlier, those who defended Sarajevo from within and beyond, came together to observe and launch the hopes of a coming new century, new age that would bring challenges from the assaults of fascism to climate change, from poverty and disease to biodiversity and the ethical treatment of our animal neighbors, all which demand a response of global citizens. Inclusion trumps domination.

Sarajevo was not perhaps the birth of something new but it was critical to our understanding and evolution as global citizens. Artists had previously gathered to bring awareness to famine and seek to isolate Apartheid, (“Won’t Play Sun City” campaign). Efforts to define humanity on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or simply with walls appeared to be on the retreat particularly after the horrors of the Holocaust had been exposed and the Berlin Wall torn down. The siege of Sarajevo appeared as the last desperate death cry of fascism, the last epidemic of a rampant nationalism. Unfortunately two decades later our hopes have been proven wrong as ethnic cleansing rages from Myanmar to the Central African Republic. New assaults, whether directed by ISIS in Syria or Putin in Ukraine have found their genetic code in the ancestry of past wars distant and more recent as in BiH. Nationalism has been revived like an infection not thoroughly seen to cure with penicillin. There is a new generation of politicians harvesting votes through the appeal of identity politics to divide us by real and presumed differences and driving a new generation of conflict as well as barriers. The best cure is to remind of that which unites all humanity, as global citizens.


PHOTOS:  Zoo Station, Creamusic.net, WikipediA


About the Author

Muhamed Sacirbey
Muhamed Sacirbey
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey currently lectures on Digital-Diplomacy. "Mo" has benefited from a diverse career in investment banking & diplomacy, but his passion has been the new avenues of communication. He was Bosnia & Herzegovina's first Ambassador to the United Nations, Agent to the International Court of Justice, Foreign Minister & Signatory of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. He also played American football opting for a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans after being admitted to Harvard, oh well!!
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