I am sitting in the Sarajevo War Theater before watching 1984. We are up a steep hill not far from the Zetra Stadium and I passed old people struggling to stay on their feet, children zooming downhill on handmade sledges and people shovelling snow from their driveways, revealing their cars. There is a state of national emergency in Sarajevo and men have been called into action to clear the streets. When I came here earlier to make sure I would find it, there was a young man clearing the snow from the theatre’s front doorway. I asked if this was the theatre and without a pause he said ‘Yes. This is the Sarajevo War Theater so we are used to worse than this’. He said he was an actor in tonight’s performance and he wanted to make it easier for the audience. I asked which character he was playing. He said O’Brien. When I told him I was a writer he introduced me to the director and said I should come and have a drink after the show. I said I would not understand the dialogue but I would try and follow the story. He said he looked forward to seeing me and went back to clearing away the snow. In England when it snows the show is cancelled. Here, the actors make sure the show must go on. They are used to worse than this.
There is a sense of generosity everywhere I go in Sarajevo. Earlier today I went to To Be or Not To Be, a cafe in the Old Town, and the owner made me coffee while preparing meat for today’s menu. The walls were lined with theatre posters and a picture of the cellist of Sarajevo sitting in the ruins of the National Library with his head in his hands. I felt like I was sitting in the owner’s kitchen while he talked to me, told me where I should go, what I should see. But when he couldn’t give me any change he just said don’t worry maybe I could come back to eat another time. I went back earlier tonight to leave him some money. There is a real sense of camaraderie amongst the men sweeping away the snow. People are waving at them, thanking them, high fiving them. When I saw a man earlier clearing snow from the doorway of a restaurant he said ‘Closed’. I said ‘Everywhere is closed’ and he said ‘Yes. Everywhere is closed.’ When I said ‘Sarajevo is closed’. He said ‘Yes. Like the war.’
When we flew to Belgrade last night, my neighbour told me that Sarajevo had been ‘erased by the snow’ and now I know what he means. There are no cars on the roads. They are hidden, sometimes completely blanketed and trams have been abandoned, doubled up with snow. People walk on the roads, as the pavements are not accessible. There is snow on the roves that falls onto passers by below. Erasing buildings. Erasing cars. I passed the cemetery earlier near the Zetra Stadium and the white gravestones were all lost in the snow, even they have been erased. The stadium itself has lost its architectural features beneath its snowy lid and when I went inside to ask permission to sit in the auditorium today they said it was not possible as there was a tarpaulin down on the ground. The whole building is cocooned by the weather and it looks like it has been kept on ice, or mothballed, since 1984. Logos remain on the walls, neighboured by graffiti, faded stickers adorn the doors, the mascot still grins at you from above and billboards, tattered by age and war, say welcome to the Olympic city. When I left the foyer there were plastic buckets by the door, catching drips from the leaky ceiling under the weight of the thawing snow. The security guard asked me to stop taking photographs, perhaps aware that I was capturing a building in a state of decay. I stopped taking photos and headed out into the snow.
The stadium is a ghost today, wrapped in its white sheet, down a forgotten road, between cemeteries. The landscape and architecture of Sarajevo is haunted by its history. It wears traces of war, bullet holes and shell damage on buildings, engraved names on the walls and red wax poured into the pavement – Sarajevo Roses. Roads criss cross the city and whenever the view opens up to the mountains you think of how you would have been a target. It is impossible to escape the past here. Every road, every bridge, every face shares something of its history. A bridge named after a victim. A Market Stall called Sniper’s Alley. A gift shop selling souvenir bullets. A smile from a stranger in the street that says you can never understand this. Buckets catching rain in an Olympic Stadium.
I think of the stadium when I see the performance tonight. It shares a uniform austerity, a modest construction, it is unassuming and workmanlike, not a ‘statement’ like modern Olympic venues, but almost a question. It asks you to consider it for what it might accommodate not how it looks. The performance is moving and powerful. Two young men and one young woman take ownership of Orwell’s text and edit the narrative to focus on the relationship between Winston, Julia and O’Brien. Where more bodies are needed they revert to video of a miniature diorama of an execution, live streamed with a video phone. When Winston edits books, using ‘Unspeak’, he speaks to us into a mic. When Winston is tortured, the pages of his own diary are ripped out, torn into pieces and screwed up over the same microphone to sound like his bones breaking. When the rats arrive they are heard but not seen and so remain imagined, by the audience but also by Orwell’s protagonist. Winston’s worst fear is both come to life and hallucinated. It is as much a dream as his escape into the country.
‘Oranges and Lemons’ sung in Bosnian seems all the more potent to an outsider, when one considers the luxuries denied the city during the siege, perhaps just as in the Blitz when bananas were an unknown to children born during the Second World War. And the finale, a beautiful juxtaposition of Radiohead and a pop art assemblage of images of war, from Iran, from Libya, from North Korea, both dominates and haloes the performers as they enter a never-ending cycle of work without fixed purpose, words without fixed meanings and wars without fixed enemies. The Orwellian resonance with the War was not lost on me tonight but it wasn’t until I got home that the significance of the year became clear. Just as the music of Bolero haunted me in the theatre in Paris, the year of the Olympics is haunting me in Sarajevo. 1984 was a utopian dream for Olympic idealists but it was borne of a liberal Socialist State, a state Orwell might have approved of, with his idea of Democratic Socialism. I wondered what he would have thought of this performance and I think he would have approved. He wanted writing to be like a window pane. Even though I couldn’t understand the text, I could see through it.
When I walked home from the theatre tonight I saw a red rose in the snow. I wondered if this was a memorial to someone, a loved one, shot during the war at this spot on the hill. And I thought of Sarajevo Roses and the roses in Ravel’s garden in Montfort L’Amaury and the roses thrown onto the ice after Torvill and Dean’s Olympic routine and the rose I left on Ravel’s grave in Levallois-Perret. Next door to the stadium was an outdoor ice rink where speed skating took place during the Olympics and, throughout the war, this is where people were buried. There is a photo in the Zetra Stadium of people lowering their loved ones into the ground whilst looking to the mountains as if they might be next. It is incomprehensible that this happened a few years after the Olympics, and the impact of this image, of this knowledge, will haunt me long after I leave here.
Tomorrow I will visit the Winter Olympic museum to meet its curator and find out about the history of the Olympics and how it has defined the city, shaped its landscape, its culture and its people. As I walk home in the snow, stumbling and slipping across the ice, I pass the eternal flame where an old woman is warming her hands. It is a memorial to members of the resistance who lost their lives during the Second World War. Another reminder, like the Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, of how Sarajevo has been at the beating heart of wars so many times before. I feel so ill equipped to understand, to explore, to explain, to tell this story. I was not there during the war, during any war. I am not George Orwell. I cannot say, like he did, ‘As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.’