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Reconstructing normality in a war-damaged city

news: letter from sarajevo

With barely two years passed since the ceasefire, a picture of normality is slowly being sketched out in Sarajevo, writes Ingerid Helsing Almas. Most of the buildings in the city centre have been repaired, and though there are still grenade marks on the pavements and many windows are still burned out or boarded up, the minarets have been re-erected and the national library re-roofed. Benetton opened its first shop on the corner of Kaptol and Mula Mustafe Baseskija in 1995, Yves Rocher has taken over the site of the bakery outside which people queuing for bread were killed by one of the first grenades which fell on the city.

In the suburbs the reaction to the war has been less glamorous. Taking the tram towards Ilidza, you pass the tv station, the former headquarters of the Oslobodenje newspaper, industrial areas, public buildings and innumerable Modernist social housing blocks: all damaged, some totally destroyed. Next to the airport stretches a vast area of smaller blocks and detached houses, all burned, shelled, crushed, empty. House after house where no one lives because they can't: their house was damaged beyond repair, their gardens have been mined, they were too scared to stay when the shelling started, they belonged to the wrong ethnic group, they had to flee, or they are dead. The remaining walls and rubble heaps give little specific information about these people, other than their obvious absence. Here, normality has yet to be defined.

As the chaos of war is slowly being brought to an end, other forces have gone to work among the broken shards of the city. Thirty per cent of all buildings in Bosnia were affected by the war, in many cases to such an extent that to a Western eye there seems to be nothing to do but to tear the rest down and start again. But Fleming Ibfelt, a Danish architect working with the International Management Group (img) on the reconstruction of villages and rural areas as well as Sarajevo itself, says img makes a point of using what it can of the ruins that remain, even if it is only the foundations and a few stumps of wall. Firstly, it is 50-60 per cent cheaper than new construction. Secondly, it retains existing property lines, essential in a country where 56 per cent of the population has been displaced to other areas and has the right to return to reoccupy their former homes. The return of internally displaced persons and the repatriation of refugees who have fled abroad is a main part of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, but one which has yet to be implemented with any success. It takes more than a repaired house to make a Serb family move back into a Muslim neighbourhood, especially if that house is already occupied by a family of Muslim refugees who took shelter there during the war and now claim it as their own. Thirdly, the ruined houses have an important emotional value: they hold memories of pre-war lives and personal histories which are more important than the inadequate shelter they provide. Agencies like igm are thus involved not only with physical reconstruction but with piecing together the property structure of the country and with reforming whole communities, an involved and immensely complicated process, with implications far beyond the professional area normally assigned to architects.

Internationally funded organisations and non-governmental agencies control the money which is paying for the reconstruction of former Yugoslavia, as well as the priorities along which it is distributed. As one would expect, their work is geared to benefit both Bosnia and the rest of Europe: to reconstruct people's homes and bodies, to install a Western-style democracy in the young nation, to open the way for a market economy. But these organisations bring with them an ignorance of local conditions which can easily turn the process of reconstruction into one of obliteration. They are in Bosnia because of what has happened there over the last five years, not because of the centuries which went before. They bring with them a vision of normality which is often different to what local people remember of pre-war Bosnia: Western habits and expectations. Islamic organisations funded by countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia are reconstructing mosques and providing religious education as well as humanitarian aid. The Bosnian reaction to the presence of the 'internationals' in the reconstruction process is ambivalent. On the one hand rebuilding cannot take place without foreign investment, and financial aid is never given unconditionally. Local authorities and development legislation are only slowly being reorganised and defined, there are few controls on development, and little regard for local history and culture. Architects' organisations and initiatives like the recently for giving a direction to the developments in the city and securing local involvement. Decades of pre-war socialist bureaucracy have slowed the ability of the culture to adapt quickly to changing circumstances; priorities which may exist in the minds and memories of Sarajevans are not sufficiently clearly defined and instrumentalised to stem the tide of foreign money which will inevitably take its own course. Money doesn't wait.

On the other hand, normality of any kind has been in short supply in Sarajevo since the outbreak of war: people crave it, consume it, flaunt it - there are as many new hairdressing and beauty salons as there are new food shops, as if the inhabitants of the city need to reconstruct themselves before they can concentrate on the immense problem of reconstructing the country. The architectural situation is paradoxical. After the war, the aims of building are simple: reconstruction means repair, and there is negligible need for architectural input in terms of what we normally think of as design. On the other hand, in besieged Sarajevo, architecture could shield you from shelling or provide a vantage point for enemy snipers; the design and construction of a building could cost you your life or save it. The effect the built environment has on people has been, and still is, greater here than that achieved by any recent celebrated building in the West.

Ingerid Helsing Almaas and Pascal Schoning went to Bosnia with aa Diploma Unit 3

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