Firecrackers & Flares in Sarajevo


Guest writer Tim Hartley reflects on Sarajevo’s troubled past and takes in one of the capital’s derby games. You can follow Tim on twitter @timhhartley….

Olimpik Sarajevo 0 v 2 FK Sarajevo (31.08.2013)

Bosnia and Herzegovina have qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time in the country’s short history. The national team’s success may have at last united a country of diverse peoples with Serbs and Croats for once celebrating together. “Football’s a way of bringing people together,” says Bosnia’s sports minister, Salmir Kaplan. But in Bosnia Herzegovina, old habits, like tribal loyalties, die hard.

We crossed the border from Croatia over a narrow bridge spanning the river Sava at Brod. Or Slavonski Brod depending on which side of the river you are. But hold on, this was not Bosnia. The bold blue sign welcomed us to Republika Srpska, an autonomous Serb entity within the complicated set up that is modern day Bosnia-Herzegovina. An independent country yes, but still not united it seems.

Twenty years on and the evidence of the war that so deeply divided the former Yugoslavia was still painfully clear as we drove south west along windy roads through lush farmland. For mile after mile we saw no-one. There were homes in tiny hamlets of three or four houses either side of the road but they all lay abandoned. Nobody was sitting on the veranda. There were no chickens scratching in the yard. No children playing in the overgrown grass. These once sturdy three storey buildings lay in ruin, every window put out, the walls pockmarked with gunfire, others bearing the blackened imprint of scorch marks where families had been burned out of their homes. It was a grizzly freeze-frame of a filthy form of so-called cleansing.

My travelling friend John broke the silence in the car. “But these were normal people. Like us. They watched TV at night. Had a beer and a laugh. Where did the hatred come from? They were neighbours for Chrissake.” Just then a single newly built house appeared, smart, clean and with a shiny car sitting proudly on the drive. It was directly opposite another burned out house. The Srpska flag blew from a skinny wavering pole in the well-kept garden. Why build a new home when there were perfectly good frames still standing? Were they ashamed of moving into the bedrooms of a family who had at best been forced across the river simply for being Croatian?

In the Sarajevo City Museum the stories of hatred, fear, loathing and suffering were piled one on top of the other. There were accusations of atrocities and excesses from both sides. The tangible history of this city hits you at every turn. Outside the now rebuilt Sacred Heart Cathedral is a splodge of red. Mortar rounds landing on concrete create a unique fragmentation pattern which look like a floral arrangement. The locals filled the holes with red resin to mark where the mortar shells fell, killing civilians indiscriminately. There are dozens of theses markers all over the city. They call them ‘Sarajevo roses.’ One by one they are disappearing as the asphalt is replaced. Memories fading little by little.

We were staying at the Markale hostel right next to the market where a shell landed in February 1994, killing 68 people and injuring 144. The images of that massacre, body parts strewn on the pavement, summary executions in the street and Sarajevo’s notorious sniper alley seemed at odds with what is now a bustling capital city where different cultures appeared to co-exist. I was woken at four thirty by the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Then at seven thirty the bells of the cathedral rang out to celebrate the first mass of the day. There was something reassuring about this age old devotion, whichever god you worship. The city seemed calm and confident, cosmopolitan and tolerant. Maybe at last there was peace in Sarajevo. Perhaps they’d all just had enough of the hatred and anger.

SAR4The approach to the Otoka football ground took us past the mighty Istiklal džamija mosque. A gift from the Indonesian people, its two towering minarets guard the wide, black central dome. As the football fans in their red and white scarves straggled past the mosque, a wedding party spilled out through its heavy doors. The young men wore shiny dark suits, some women had full headscarves while one wore a very short, yellow mini skirt. And as we waited for kick off in the away stand the Muslim call to prayer reverberated form the minarets across the pitch towards us.


This Saturday afternoon the capital’s third team, Olimpik Sarajevo, was taking on local rivals and the runners up of last year’s Bosnian Premier League, FK Sarajevo. Both clubs were formed out of war. Olimpik in October 1993 during the siege of Sarajevo, while FK was set up in the nascent Yugoslavia just after World War II.  Now football around here has a bit of history. During the Bosnian war both sides recruited for street fighters from football clubs. FK Sarajevo’s ‘Hordes of Evil’ ultras, (‘ultras’ is the European shorthand for passionate fans, mostly passionate but sometimes violent too,) joined the Bosnian government side as did the ‘Maniacs’ of Zeljeznicar, FK’s main rivals. But that was then wasn’t it? History as they say.

Two flares fizzed in the middle of the packed terrace spewing pink smoke over the crowd and across the pitch, obscuring the green playing surface. As one, the supporters started chanting in a low guttural voice, and then they stopped. There was a second of cold silence before a single drum crack echoed back from the opposite terrace heralding another round of chanting. The fans were egged on by a man with a megaphone precariously hanging from a post at pitch side. The almost military precision of it all was awe inspiring and, as this was Sarajevo, just a little unsettling.

SAR5We stood among the FK faithful who filled the larger side of this tiny stadium. Olimpik have very few fans and on today’s evidence even fewer who would openly show their support. The game was not much to write home about but despite the poor performances there was a fiery passion in the crowd. Every decision the referee made was contested. Fire crackers punctuated the singing and the game had to be stopped more than once as flares were thrown onto the pitch. Back home this would have been national news and those responsible would face prison and lengthy football banning orders. But this was Sarajevo and the players just used the stop in play to draw breath as a podgy fireman ran onto the pitch with a bucket of sand. It was just another Saturday at the football.


FK won by two goals to nil in what was a pretty nothingy game. Yet the referee and linesmen were pelted with bottles, coins and goodness knows what else as they made their way off the pitch. Police and officials had to shield them as they ran to the safety of the plastic tunnel. There was a venom in the crowd but no-one to direct it at. It was as if these young men were acting out their own part in a strange, stylised performance: a theatre of hate without a victim, just the pantomime villain that is the poor referee. In his dystopian novel ‘1984’ George Orwell wrote about the ‘Two Minutes Hate’.  Every morning party members gathered together to vent their hatred of an imaginary enemy shouting abuse at a single figure on a huge screen. It was a daily outlet for the people’s anger and frustration. Has football become our weekly ‘Ninety Minutes Hate?’

These young men, and some women, on the terrace of the Otoka football ground, were obviously Sarajevo’s ‘lads,’ the hardcore, who just a few years ago would have been cowering from real munitions. Perhaps these games provide an outlet, a release of emotion and anger for all the hatred which had so recently led to murder, rape and genocide. Is football a metaphor for war? I don’t know, but better this bit of play acting than the real thing.

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