When students were asked to express their hopes and dreams for the future on canvas, they painted motorways. They wanted fast and effective escape routes. When the brushes were handed to children from the orphanage, they refused to use colour. All their painting was done in black
These and many other illustrative responses from Sarajevo's youth are part of an unusual art exhibition, Ask Sarajevo. It started with five young women from Norway and a school project on urban renewal. The result so far is a bombed out building draped in 5000 m2 of art, designer dresses painted by gypsy children, and a reinvigorated plan to recapture a city space for Sarajevo's young. From an initially modest proposal &ldquoto bring something positive in to a bleak cityscape”, the small project has taken on a life of its own. Perhaps because it asked questions like – is it possible to be young, Bosnian and hopeful?
Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country that has long been loosing hope, along with its next generation. From a population of just over 4 million, 1.2 million had become refuges when the war ended in 1996. 750 000 of them now live abroad with no plans to return. Despite a stated policy of encouraging the return of all displaced people, the brain drain phenomenon has not diminished since the war. A recent UN poll has shown that 77% of young people now living in Sarajevo wants to leave. They see no future for themselves in their own Country.
Cathrine Shetelig and Julie Fjeldstad are part of the group who initiated the exhibition. Shetelig describes her first impressions when arriving in Sarajevo: &ldquoEverything here is focused on the past. Reminders of three recent wars are everywhere in the city. There are no parks, they have all become cemeteries. Houses everywhere are scarred with bullet holes. On my first day here, the taxi driver suddenly screeched to a halt, flung open his door and threw himself under the car. The noise of a backfiring exhaust triggered the memory of gunfire that almost killed him eight years ago. Between 1992 and 1996, during the siege of Sarajevo, more than 12,000 people lost their lives. 1,500 of those were young children. For 1,265 days, Serbian militias held the citizens hostage, in the longest siege in modern history&ldquo.
Sarajevo before the war, writes Misha Glenny in The Fall of Yugoslavia, &ldquoboasted a lively cultural life, a relatively high standard of living and an electric cosmopolitanism”. Situated where east meets west, Islam meets Christianity; it was a melting pot renowned for the peaceful co-existence of its ethnically diverse population. Sarajevans also enjoyed a relatively high standard of living.
In 2004, economic stagnation, ethnic tensions and the frustration of ordinary people make it a bleak, dispirited city. Unemployment stands at 40% and the Country is heavily reliant on international aid. A complex web of organisations and agencies maintains a fragile peace. Bosnia has three Presidents who each sit for eight months. The highest authority in the Country however rests with Paddy Ashdown as the High Representative and EU special envoy. The international community created this office and has absolute authority to change laws and dismiss elected politicians. Also helping to ‘deter hostilities’ is the military presence of a stabilisation force, SFOR. This elaborate structure has prevented further atrocities, but it comes at a price.