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Sarajevo with tears: Another walk down Logavina Street

May 16, 2012 |  9:15 am

Barbara Demick says that" real Sarajevans don’t like to talk about the war," but her book, "Logavina Street," follows the lives of a small community during the conflict
Twenty years ago, war raged across the former Yugoslavia, killing 100,000 people. The Bosnian war was the first in Europe in nearly half a century and, coming after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, was a shock to those who expected those events to yield a lasting peace. What they got instead was the horror of ethnic cleansing at a level not seen in Europe since World War II.

Sarajavo, a relatively modern European city, was the subject of the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare, lasting from 1992 to 1995. The city that had hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984 became a prison for more than 300,000 people who were trapped with little food, running water, electricity or heat. Residents were subjected to constant mortar attacks and sniper fire from Bosnian Serb gunners on the hills overlooking the historic city.

Barbara Demick, now perhaps best known for her groundbreaking book on North Korea, "Nothing to Envy," was a correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer during the siege. She and photographer John Costello moved into Sarajevo and filed a series of dispatches from one six-block-long stretch of the city called Logavina Street. About 240 families -- Muslims, Christians, Serbs and Croats -- had lived easily together on this street unified by their common identity as Sarajevans until the war tore that apart.

Demick received the prestigious George Polk Award as well as the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for her reporting from Sarajevo. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting. In 1996, her book, "Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood," was published and received excellent critical notice.

Last month, she and hundreds of other reporters who covered the war had a reunion in Sarajevo to mark the war's beginning in April 1992. A revised edition of "Logavina Street" was recently released with a new preface, final chapter and epilogue.

We talked to Demick, now the Beijing correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, about the process of revisiting, in her book and in person.

Jacket Copy: What was the original idea for your reporting from Logavina Street?

Barbara Demick: To allow readers to grasp the enormity of what was happening, I picked one street and followed the residents as they tried to cope under the siege. Logavina is a beautiful street with slender, white minarets over red rooftops, rising into the mountains from the old downtown. Near the foot of the street are Catholic and Orthodox churches and a synagogue. We followed a teenage girl whose parents had been decapitated by a mortar shell as they collected water, a volunteer policeman and his young sons, a doctor, a dentist, a general who happened to be an ethnic Serb. Although Bosnian Serb nationalists were responsible for the siege, Logavina still had quite a few Serb families who remained during the war and rejected ethnic extremism. The project was very innovative at the time. Although many others had covered the hardships of Sarajevo, we always wrote about the same people so that readers came to know them. It was a bit of a soap opera set in wartime.

Barbara Demick continues after the jump.

Why go back to Sarajevo? As journalists covering the war, we lived under almost the same siege conditions as the Sarajevans and so we bonded with the people. I wanted to check in to see what happened to them. Bosnia was also a powerful cause for the people of my generation, who believed in multi-ethnicity. I remember that Susan Sontag [who went to Sarajevo to stage a production of "Waiting for Godot"] likened it to the Spanish Civil War, summing up the opposing forces of the era. Bosnia is seldom in the news nowadays -- its horrors buried by Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan. In foreign policy circles, however, people often refer to Bosnia in discussions about the international community's responsibilities to prevent crimes against humanity. Last month was the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war, April 6, 1992. It was a very emotional time for us and for Sarajevans. On the anniversary itself, they set out 11,541 empty red plastic chairs along the main drag, for all of the people who were killed in the city. There were small chairs for the children, and people put down teddy bears and toys.

JC: How did living there 20 years ago change you?

BD: Sarajevo yanked me out of my comfort zone. I didn't take the privileges of my life as an American for granted in the same way afterward.

JC: What was the most surprising thing to you about the response now in Sarajevo to the war?

BD: There is a little bit of a love-hate thing going with the war. The war gave Sarajevo a wave of sympathy that brought all sorts of celebrities into the place -- Pope John Paul II, Bono, Luciano Pavarotti, more recently Angelina Jolie, who directed her first feature film ["In the Land of Blood and Honey"] about the Bosnian war. At the same time, the real Sarajevans don't like to talk about the war. One of the people in my book, Tarik Kaljanac, a toddler during the war and now a Calvin Klein underwear model who works around the world, told me he never tells people of his memories of the war because he wants them to think he is "normal."

JC: Did you consider completely rewriting the book?

BD: I did consider rewriting the book. My second book, "Nothing to Envy," which is about North Korea, used a slower-moving narrative style that I thought was very effective, and if had I to do it all over again, I might have done the same. When I reread Logavina Street, parts struck me as maybe a little naive. I'd only been a foreign correspondent a few months when I came to Bosnia. I was shocked by things I perhaps wouldn't find as surprising now; for example, that snipers would target civilians in the middle of Europe while journalists and U.N. peacekeepers looked on. But then I thought my innocence was in fact part of the story and that to inject the cynicism of an older reporter wouldn't improve the book.

JC: Why did you dedicate the book to Elizabeth Neuffer?

BD: Elizabeth was a good friend and a reporter for the Boston Globe. She and I came to Bosnia at the same time and had similar experiences. She wrote a fine book called "The Key to My Neighbors' House," about how neighbors had turned against one another in Bosnia and Rwanda. Elizabeth used to remind me that one of the qualities of a good journalist was to never lose your sense of outrage. That sentiment was very much with me in redoing Logavina Street. She was killed in a car accident in Iraq in 2003.


Barbara Tuchman's opening lines

BBC Prize for Nonfiction winner: The L.A. Times' Barbara Demick

Jonathan Franzen, Barbara Demick among finalists for the National Book Critics Circle Awards

-- Jon Thurber

Photo: Barbara Demick working at the damaged Holiday Inn in Sarajevo. Credit: John Costello