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Trees for Sarajevo.

In November 1992 I found myself at a literary conference in Strasbourg, France, speaking on a subject I knew only too well - culture under siege. As editor-in-chief of the Sarajevo independent daily, Oslobodjenje, I was away from my homeland for the first time in seven months, receiving medical treatment. Europe was just an hour-long flight from Sarajevo, but worlds away.

The invitation had come while I was in Croatia to get physical therapy on a knee badly smashed in a high speed automobile crash. Our car had been hit by a speeding police car as we careered through the city at 90 miles per hour, trying to escape Serb snipers targeting anything within their sight.

Medical miracle workers at Sarajevo Kosevo Hospital toiled daily without basics such as electricity and often while being shelled. Dr. Edib Jerlagic worked four hours to repair my smashed knee. It took another four months to get permission for my family and me to fly out for the rehabilitation I was told I needed. U.N. humanitarian flights had been canceled after an Italian plane carrying food for starving Sarajevans was shot down.

When the request came to share my experiences as editor of Bosnia's largest newspaper, Oslobodjenje, I felt I owed the effort to the Sarajevans and Bosnians I had left behind. Still on crutches, I found myself at a gala dinner seated next to Strasbourg Mayor Catherine Trotman, now a minister in the French government, who asked, "What can we - Europe, the West - do for Sarajevo?"

"Do whatever you can to stop the killing, to bring about peace, and then bring us trees," I said. "There aren't any left in Sarajevo. All city trees, all parks, have been cut for wood to give some warmth to people freezing in a city with no windows, no gas, no electricity."

I returned to Sarajevo that December, still on crutches, to find the siege - and the desperation - continuing. During the three-and-a-half years that the Bosnian capital lay under Serbian attack, 10,609 people were killed - including 1,600 children - before the international community intervened and mediated an American-brokered peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995.

During the long years of the siege, trees became our most precious commodity. People would risk sniper fire and shelling to cut any tree left in their neighborhood, although police and soldiers would sometimes confiscate the wood "for cooking and heating for the city's defense forces."

When all the trees and most of Sarajevo's once-beautiful parks were finally gone, people dug up tree stumps. In the summer of 1993, families from my neighborhood took their children and searched for stumps whenever there was a respite in shelling. An entire day of cutting and digging would yield a few bags of wood for cooking and winter heating.

With no gas or electricity, people in neighborhoods like Hrasno, where I lived, shared whatever they could. Neighbors in our eight-story apartment building found an old-fashioned stove abandoned at a nearby construction site and placed it in what had been a trash collection room by our building's entrance, safe from unrelenting sniper fire. We all contributed anything that could make fire - old papers, books, apartment floors and doors, drawers and chairs, nightstands and cupboards, bookcases, and raw wood. Then we waited in line to heat our soup or beans, or the rice and macaroni handed out as part of the humanitarian-aid effort.

Just how important trees became to Sarajevans during the war and the sense of desperation felt by a city under siege were brilliantly captured in two cartoons by one of Bosnia's finest cartoonists, Bozo Stefanovic, published in my newspaper.

One depicted a desperate Sarajevan trying to hang himself in a former city park but unable to find a tree on which to do the deed. Another shows Jesus Christ carrying his cross while around him Sarajevans carry trees up a hill. Stefanovic drew most of his black-humor cartoons by candlelight because the city was usually without electricity.

One of the ironies of war-time Sarajevo was that some of the places we loved the most in our pre-war lives became the most threatening. Sarajevo was built in a valley around the tiny Muiljacka River, surrounded first by hills and then mountains on all sides. After centuries of development - with cultural, religious, and architectural influences from the Turkish Ottoman Empire, then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and decades of socialists' imitation of "European standards" - the city spread to the surrounding hills in narrow steep streets, called sokak, dotted with small white houses and slim minarets.

There was nothing so exciting in pre-war years as my returns to Sarajevo by the night train from Zagreb or Belgrade; city lights would spread from the valley high up the hills, seeming to touch the stars, mingling with them as far as I could see.

"Daddy, New York!" my son Mirza, then only 5, told me in the early 1980s when we made our first evening drive from the ski slopes to Sarajevo after my four-year stint as Oslobodjenje's New York correspondent. That nighttime view of Sarajevo remains my most vivid memory of the once-cosmopolitan Bosnian capital.

The hills around Sarajevo were the major part of our lives. Mount Trebevic, visible from any point in the city, was every Sarajevan's favorite destination. Tarik was only 18 months old when I first took him sledding there. And he was only 4 when he began to ski those friendly slopes. At 7 or 8 he was skiing the more challenging Olympic slopes of the Jahorina and Bjelasnica mountains. While the city was often covered by thick smoke, the evergreen Trebevic forests provided Sarajevo's children with a breath of fresh air. Between early spring and late autumn, Trebevic was filled with those enjoying long walks, mountain climbing, or family barbecues overlooking the vibrant city below.

At the beginning of the siege, all those hills and mountains - Trebevic, Jahorina, Igman, Bjelasnica - became artillery positions. That clear view of the city was no longer a source of joy; it was used to target, kill, and destroy centuries-old tradition and a culture of tolerance. Minarets of the many mosques that survived first the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires and then World Wars I and II, became favorite targets for Serb gunners. Among the priceless treasures lost was the century-old Austrian-built City Hall, which housed the Bosnian National Library's millions of books and manuscripts. It was shelled for days before being burned to the ground in August 1992 along with many other symbols of Bosnia's heritage. Gone was Zetra Olympic Hall, site of the figure skating and hockey competitions and the closing ceremonies for the Winter Olympics in 1984. Gone too were one of Europe's most beautiful train stations, my newspaper, and the Parliament - everything within reach of the Serbian anti-aircraft guns, mortars, tanks, cannons, and rocket launchers occupying the once-peaceful Trebevic hills.

There were constant battles in which poorly armed Bosnian boys managed to stop advances even by tanks. In retaliation for not being able to occupy my neighborhood, Serbian gunners shelled it indiscriminately. Scores of people were killed in and around the building in which I lived. In September 1992, a single mortar shell hit a line of my neighbors waiting for humanitarian aid at the corner of my building and killed six, including a 21-year-old student who was close friends with my son and an elegant old lady from the building next to us.

Hidden behind a refrigerator, my wife Vesna and I watched in disbelief out a long-ago shattered kitchen window as a tank fired from behind a World War II monument built at the foot of Trevevic. I could see a barrel behind the trees around the monument, then a blast, and less than two seconds later a balcony in neighboring Pere Kosorica square, later known locally as Heroes square, exploded in smoke and dust as someone's apartment became an empty black hole. That murderous ritual lasted for hours until the whole 21-story apartment building burned, leaving many dead and some 800 homeless in just one terror-filled day. The hills and mountains we all loved had become a threat to our very survival.

It is interesting - and maybe some symbol of the strength of love in the face of barbaric terror - that the only surviving treed street is the so-called "Alley of Love" - some two miles of street along the Miljacka River connecting the old and new city. Known for generations as Wilson's Walk, it was a "no man's land," between Serb-occupying forces on the left bank and the city's defenders on the right.

That alley was also the scene of the single most reviled murder during the siege: 25-year-old lovers cut down by sniper fire after a promise to allow them safe passage out of Sarajevo. This Sarajevan Romeo and Juliet story became a local legend and a PBS documentary. After the war they were reburied in Sarajevo and the alley is again a favorite place for young lovers to walk, sit and talk, or kiss and hug under the decades-old trees.

I was deeply moved by AMERICAN FORESTS' pledge - initiated by American Ambassador to Austria Swanee Hunt, who was involved in many humanitarian efforts to help Bosnia-to plant 1,600 trees in Sarajevo, one for each child killed during those terrible days. I hope my reflections may generate further support for this effort. It has been more than five years since that dinner in Strasbourg when I defined Sarajevo's priorities in only two words: peace and trees. It still rings true today.

RELATED ARTICLE: Help Us Green Sarajevo

If you'd like to help in the international effort to regreen Sarajevo, you can do so through AMERICAN FORESTS. Each $10 donation to our Global ReLeaf-Sarajevo effort will plant one large urban tree in that war-torn city. AMERICAN FORESTS, in partnership with the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs from the Independent Order of Odd Fellows of New York, also is planting trees in a Global ReLeaf Forest at the Sunrise Fire pine barren restoration site on Long Island. The forest is being planted in memory of the 1,600 children who perished during the siege.

Offers of support have come from several of Global ReLeaf's partners, including Germany's Prima Klima, Hungary's Independent Ecological Center, Global ReLeaf Slovakia, and the National Ecological Centre of Ukraine.

Another goal is to have each of Sarajevo's "sister cities" (cities that establish cultural, economic, and social ties) join the tree-planting effort. The first to do that - Coventry, England - was recently joined by Calgary, Alberta, Canada, which although not a sister city, said it shared a history as a fellow host of the Winter Olympic Games.

Chrystia Sonevytsky, international coordinator for Global ReLeaf hopes December's visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina by President and Mrs. Clinton will further spur the American public's involvement in this worthwhile effort, begun by former U.S. Ambassadors Swanee Hunt and John Menzies, who contributed to humanitarian efforts to help Bosnia. Help us begin to restore trees to this once-green city. Send contributions of $10 or more to Global ReLeaf-Sarajevo, PO Box 2000, Washington, DC 20013, or call Chrystia Sonevytsky at 202/955-4500 ext. 231.

- Janine Guglielmino

Kemal Kurspahic is a former editor-in-chief for the Bosnian independent daily Oslobodjenje in Sarajevo. The World Press Review named him International Editor of the Year in 1993 for publishing under fire in wartime Sarajevo. His memoirs, As Long as Sarajevo Exists, were published in 1997 by Pamphleteer's press.
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on greening
Author:Kurspahic, Kemal
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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