War Wounds - Ski Mag

War Wounds

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In February of 1984, the Winter Olympics were held in the bustling mountain-ringed city of Sarajevo, in what was then the nation of Yugoslavia. For American ski racers, it was a glorious Games. Phil Mahre won the slalom, a fifth of a second ahead of his identical twin, Steve. Debbie Armstrong, a virtual unknown, took gold in the giant slalom; her teammate, Christin Cooper, captured the silver. And Bill Johnson, the wild man out of California whom the Sarajevans still refer to as "The Cowboy," won the downhill, outskiing the mighty Austrians. I was a teenager at the time, an aspiring racer myself, and I recall thinking that Sarajevo would forever be celebrated as the place where the U.S. redefined the skiing hierarchy.

I was wrong, of course. Sarajevo is now associated with ethnic cleansing and brutal war. Even so, last winter, 15 years to the month after Johnson and Armstrong and the Mahres won their medals, three years after the end of the Bosnian conflict that had devastated the Olympic city, I traveled to Sarajevo myself.

I was inspired by a startling press release from the Bosnian Olympic Committee. Though much of Sarajevo was still in ruins, and though fighting was intensifying in neighboring Kosovo, the committee said that Sarajevo would soon be rebuilt. Money from relief agencies and national governments was flowing in. The ski hills were back in operation for the first time in six years. The city was ready to return to prominence. And now, announced the committee, Sarajevo was officially declaring its candidacy for the 2010 Winter Olympics. A week later, I was on my way.

Sarajevo is now the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovinia, a nation that merged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. Within Bosnia reside large populations of three distinct cultures: Serb, Croat, and Muslim. Serbs are Eastern Orthodox; Croats are Roman Catholic; and the Muslims are followers of Islam. (Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims are all of the same racial origin, South Slavic, and visually they are indistinguishable from one another.) During Yugoslavia's communist era, each group's religious nationalism was strongly suppressed. The freedoms that accompanied independence, however, also unleashed ancient hatreds. For nearly four years, from 1992 through 1995, the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims attempted, with considerable success, to exterminate one another.

Out of Bosnia's prewar population of five million, more than 200,000 were killed. Another 200,000 were wounded, and two million fled the country. Half of the nation's schools were destroyed, and 40 percent of the bridges. In Sarajevo alone, 2,000 children were murdered. To provide fuel to heat their homes, people cut down trees in city parks and chopped up wooden benches. Soccer fields were turned into cemeteries. The National Library was wrecked, the books scorched. All of the animals in the Sarajevo zoo starved to death. Every Olympic facility was demolished.

The Dayton accords of December 1995 halted the war, but Bosnia is now a divided nation. The Bosnian Federation, which includes Sarajevo, is home primarily to Croats and Muslims (tensions between these two groups have largely subsided). The Serb Republic encompasses northern and eastern Bosnia and is populated almost exclusively by Serbs. Few people dare cross between the two. Thirty-four thousand NATO troops are currently enforcing the peace. As many as a half million land mines may still be buried.

Even the Olympic sites have been divided. The ski hill that had hosted the men's events is now in the Bosnian Federation; the mountain the women raced on, though only 20 miles away, is in the Serb Republic. This seemed a touchy situation. I wondered what it was like skiing on former Olympic hills, and former battlefields, so soon after the hostilities had ended. Was it really possible that the Olympics could soon return?

I traveled to Sarajevo with my friend Chris Anderson, a professional photographer who had made many tri to Sarajevo during the war and had befriended several Sarajevans. One of Chris's friends, a Bosnian Muslim named Haris Hrustemovic´, picked us up at the Sarajevo airport. During the war, the area around the airport had suffered intense shelling. My first glimpse of Sarajevo was of a block of row houses practically minced from bombing. Those homes still standing remained upright only by leaning against one another. Most were piles of rubble. A nearby office building looked as though it had been flipped inside out like a dirty sweatshirt, with the pipes and ducts and stairwells now on the outside.

A street away, though, a new housing project was complete, the units painted in a rainbow of cheery pastel hues. A billboard advertised Tide laundry detergent; a neon sign over a small restaurant read pizza. I counted a half dozen construction cranes. A mosque was being repaired, its minarets encased in scaffolding. There was the sense, in this sudden juxtaposition, that the transformation I was witnessing was one of near-frenzied momentum-as swift and, it occurred to me, as superficial as a set change at the theater.

Haris took us to his apartment, a 10-minute drive from the airport. He introduced us to his wife, Sabina. They are both in their early 30s. Haris is compact and muscular, a wrestler's physique, with dark eyes and a quiet demeanor. He is employed by a Sarajevo radio station. Sabina is thin and elegant, with long black hair and a sexy way of smoking cigarettes that reminded me of movie stars from the 1920s. She works as an accountant for a war-reparation fund. They wed during the war and had to wait two years before they were able to take their first walk together as a married couple.

Their apartment is on the sixth floor of a 12-story tenement in the Sarajevo outskirts. In the living room, two walls had been patched with plywood, where a missile had blasted through-fortunately, neither Haris nor Sabina were home at the time. The facade of their building, as with every building in the neighborhood, was a moonscape of mortar-shell hits, rebar spilling from holes like loose wiring. Concrete slabs were constantly falling from buildings. During the five days I was in Sarajevo, two people died after being struck by debris.

The ski area of Bjelasnica, site of the men's Olympic ski events, is so close to Sarajevo that the start shack for the downhill can be seen from the center of town. A cab ride to the mountain costs the equivalent of $10. Chris and I headed there early on a warm, cloudless Saturday and found ourselves in a long line of cars.

Bjelasnica is an unimposing mountain, bald on top with broad shoulders dropping evenly into a thick spruce forest. The main run, scene of Bill Johnson's victory, is wide-open and smooth, zigzagging from summit to base. The snow was deep and baked by the sun into fine corn. Two lifts were operating, a T-bar and a double chair, both funded by gifts from the Austrian government. Neither ascended more than halfway up the hill. All that remained of the upper-mountain lifts were a few forlorn-looking towers; the money needed for further repairs had not yet materialized.

The three base-area hotels, scenes of mass celebrations at the Games, were complete wrecks, ceilings collapsed upon floors, walls dangling like broken shutters, not a pane of glass remaining. And yet, despite the widespread destruction and the limited terrain, the area was flooded with people.

I had expected to see crowds. The previous day, in downtown Sarajevo, I'd met with Dr. Fahrudin Kulenovic´, director of the Sarajevo Institute for Public Health, the doctor for the Bosnian national ski team, and a driving force behind both the 1984 Games and the bid for the 2010 Olympics. Dr. Kulenovic´ has skied in Bosnia for 44 years, and he spoke passionately about the return of skiing to Sarajevo: "I am not denying that there is poverty here, and destruction, and the scars of war, but the reopening of the ski areas is of utmost importance. It is a symbol of the recovering health of the country, of our economic health, of our physical health. We are saying that you can now escape the confines of the city, and the memories there, and once again go to the mountains. For many of us, I believe, it's a sort of therapy."

So it seemed. Three quarters of the people at the hill had no intention of skiing. In the large snowy meadow at the base of the mountain, there were soccer games going on, and picnics, and snow-sculpture building. Children ran loose, dragging wooden sleds. Old men sat at tables in the shade of a bombed-out hotel, drinking slivovitz (plum brandy) and playing chess. Beach chairs were everywhere. Entrepreneurs had set up makeshift stands, selling beer and soda, sunglasses and cigarettes. Families strolled about. A restaurant was open, music playing, sausages on the grill.

Chris and I had not brought our own ski gear, so we were forced to rent. The selection was poor. My skis, a decade-old pair of Elans, looked as though they had been caught in the crossfire. "We used to have better equipment," said a woman named Lila who was working at the rental shop, "but it was stolen by Serbs during the war." The rentals cost $7; a lift ticket, $9.

The line for the chair was long and disorganized and no place for politeness. Even with my elbows out and my skis riding others' tails, I still spent half the wait moving backward. Dozens of NATO soldiers, in uniform but apparently enjoying a day off, joined the local crowd. On the chair in front of Chris and me, a couple spent the entire ride tied in a kiss.

Four runs were open, all groomed and fast, with a few places to sneak down the sides and make fresh tracks. (But not too far off the sides; though the area displayed a certificate from a French peacekeeping organization declaring the mountain free of land mines, I was still leery.)

Bosnians, for the most part, are strong, confident skiers. The hills may have been closed for half a decade, but nobody seemed rusty. There were only a handful of beginners and even fewer snowboarders. Almost everyone owned their own equipment.

I began the day by schussing the bottom half of the Olympic downhill course. Most other skiers were doing the same. The run, not surprisingly, transformed everyone into speed demons. I think we all had the same tape playing in our heads, of Johnson, hell-bent for glory, barreling crazily down the mountain. And so we each flew down the run, in deep tucks, launching off the rollers at red-line velocity, gunning for air time. Several people did this all day long, timing themselves on wristwatches or racing one another side-by-side, jeering and catcalling. One young skier skidded into the base area in a billow of snow, looked uphill at an imaginary leader board, and raised his arms in fantasized victory. The few ski patrollers on the hill seemed not in the least concerned with interrupting the fun.

In many ways, Bjelasnica appeared quite ordinary. A slalom course was set up, and racers young and old, fast and not, lined up to participate. On an adjacent run, a couple of ski lessons were being taught in typical style, the students standing along the sides of the slopes performing knee bends and pole plants. Several teenagers shouldered their skis and hiked above the lifts, kicking steps all the way to the summit. I watched as they descended in energetic fashion, cutting wide, sine-curve arcs into the heavy snow, scribbling tracks across the whole of Bjelasnica's bald spot. If any land mines were still there, they remained untriggered.

At lunchtime, on the restaurant's sun deck, I met Sini*sa Kova*c, a coach with the Bosnian national ski team. He had been working with some future prospects over at the slalom course. Sini*sa, a 31- year-old Croat, sported long hair and mod sunglasses and a mysterious half grin that made everything he said take on a slight spin of sarcasm. During the siege, Si the ski areas is of utmost importance. It is a symbol of the recovering health of the country, of our economic health, of our physical health. We are saying that you can now escape the confines of the city, and the memories there, and once again go to the mountains. For many of us, I believe, it's a sort of therapy."

So it seemed. Three quarters of the people at the hill had no intention of skiing. In the large snowy meadow at the base of the mountain, there were soccer games going on, and picnics, and snow-sculpture building. Children ran loose, dragging wooden sleds. Old men sat at tables in the shade of a bombed-out hotel, drinking slivovitz (plum brandy) and playing chess. Beach chairs were everywhere. Entrepreneurs had set up makeshift stands, selling beer and soda, sunglasses and cigarettes. Families strolled about. A restaurant was open, music playing, sausages on the grill.

Chris and I had not brought our own ski gear, so we were forced to rent. The selection was poor. My skis, a decade-old pair of Elans, looked as though they had been caught in the crossfire. "We used to have better equipment," said a woman named Lila who was working at the rental shop, "but it was stolen by Serbs during the war." The rentals cost $7; a lift ticket, $9.

The line for the chair was long and disorganized and no place for politeness. Even with my elbows out and my skis riding others' tails, I still spent half the wait moving backward. Dozens of NATO soldiers, in uniform but apparently enjoying a day off, joined the local crowd. On the chair in front of Chris and me, a couple spent the entire ride tied in a kiss.

Four runs were open, all groomed and fast, with a few places to sneak down the sides and make fresh tracks. (But not too far off the sides; though the area displayed a certificate from a French peacekeeping organization declaring the mountain free of land mines, I was still leery.)

Bosnians, for the most part, are strong, confident skiers. The hills may have been closed for half a decade, but nobody seemed rusty. There were only a handful of beginners and even fewer snowboarders. Almost everyone owned their own equipment.

I began the day by schussing the bottom half of the Olympic downhill course. Most other skiers were doing the same. The run, not surprisingly, transformed everyone into speed demons. I think we all had the same tape playing in our heads, of Johnson, hell-bent for glory, barreling crazily down the mountain. And so we each flew down the run, in deep tucks, launching off the rollers at red-line velocity, gunning for air time. Several people did this all day long, timing themselves on wristwatches or racing one another side-by-side, jeering and catcalling. One young skier skidded into the base area in a billow of snow, looked uphill at an imaginary leader board, and raised his arms in fantasized victory. The few ski patrollers on the hill seemed not in the least concerned with interrupting the fun.

In many ways, Bjelasnica appeared quite ordinary. A slalom course was set up, and racers young and old, fast and not, lined up to participate. On an adjacent run, a couple of ski lessons were being taught in typical style, the students standing along the sides of the slopes performing knee bends and pole plants. Several teenagers shouldered their skis and hiked above the lifts, kicking steps all the way to the summit. I watched as they descended in energetic fashion, cutting wide, sine-curve arcs into the heavy snow, scribbling tracks across the whole of Bjelasnica's bald spot. If any land mines were still there, they remained untriggered.

At lunchtime, on the restaurant's sun deck, I met Sini*sa Kova*c, a coach with the Bosnian national ski team. He had been working with some future prospects over at the slalom course. Sini*sa, a 31- year-old Croat, sported long hair and mod sunglasses and a mysterious half grin that made everything he said take on a slight spin of sarcasm. During the siege, Sini*sa was part of a special-forces unit with the Bosnian army and had carried three automatic weapons with him at all times. Now, in addition to coaching, he teaches biomechanics and physical education at the University of Sarajevo. He's skied at Bjelasnica since he was four years old, and he seemed to know every other person on the slopes.

We rode the lift together. The Bosnian Alps, low-slung and ridgy, spread out before us. There are plans, said Sini*sa, for both a gondola and a hotel to be built here before the start of next ski season. At the top, we hiked uphill for a few minutes, and Sini*sa pointed out rocks he used to jump off when he was a kid, now unreachable by the lifts. When I asked him about the war, he was hesitant to share his feelings. He said his family's house had burned, and that several of his friends were now missing limbs, and that other friends had spent time in Serb-run concentration camps. "Life sucks, buy a helmet," he said, and then he skied off, full speed, legs wide apart like a racer's.

After the lifts closed, I wandered over to the tables beneath the ruined hotel and was roped into a game of chess and a glass of slivovitz by a man named Dinko, who lifted up his shirt to show me the entrance and exit wounds left by a bullet that had passed through his chest, somehow missing every vital organ. Even after I'd been checkmated twice, the area was still crowded. People seemed hesitant to leave.

It had been a beautiful day in the Sarajevo mountains, a minivacation, but something was missing. It was subtle, yet unmistakable. I could see it in people's eyes. Rather than the typical ski-area feeling of unrestrained joy, there was an acute sense of relief. The unspoken sentiment was that this season of freedom may only be a respite. There was peace, but it was a tenuous one. Reminders of the fighting were everywhere. No matter where you placed your beach chair, the view took in the destroyed buildings, or the soldiers. There were no locals on the hill who didn't know at least 10 people who had perished in the fighting.

Dr. Kulenovic´ had it half right: Skiing itself might provide an escape from the detritus of war, but the ski areas did not. They were, in fact, scenes of some of the most egregious war crimes.

Just down the road from Bjelasnica is a small ski hill called Igman, home to the Olympic ski-jumping arena. One afternoon, Chris and I caught a cab there. A rope tow was running and several people were skiing. It was at Igman in 1984 that the great Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykänen had won gold in the 90-meter jump, silver in the 70. The ski jumps were now cratered with blast holes. The start house atop each of them looked as if it were made of charcoal-a result of incendiary missiles. One area was corded off with thick yellow tape warning of land mines.

The podium where Nykänen was awarded his medals stood before a tall, triangular sculpture made of cement. The sculpture had been ornamented with the Olympic rings and the snowflake-shaped Sarajevo Olympic logo. Now, only two and one-fifth of the Olympic rings remained. The other rings and the logo had been blown away. What was once a smooth cement wall was pocked top to bottom with bullet scars.

A NATO soldier stationed in the area, a German colonel named Jorgen Hillerkus, told me what had happened. "The ski hills were vital strategic positions," he said, speaking excellent English. "Whoever controlled the ski hills controlled access to Sarajevo, and so there was heavy fighting here. The Serbs held the hills for most of the war, and from here they'd send missiles into the city. When they captured Bosnian soldiers, they'd sometimes bring them up here and make them stand on the medal podium. Then they'd execute them."

I ran my hand over the jagged cement. The bodies had been buried, the blood washed away, the shell casings collected for sale back in town as souvenirs. Food was available at the base-lodge cafe. Magpies flitted and called. The skie

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