Better Living Through Fudbol

When I arrived in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, last August, everyone was buzzing about the upcoming soccer match between local club Zeljeznicar and the British team Newcastle United. No one really expected the Bosnians to win, but people in Sarajevo were doing a lot of shrugging and head shaking and making, "It ain't over 'til it's over" comments. Zeljeznicar -- or Zeljo, as the team is called affectionately -- had just beaten the Icelandic team and the Norwegians, and who was to say that they couldn't -- maybe -- beat those tea bags?

This was as far as Zeljo had climbed in the European Champions League since becoming an independent nation, and with the chance to show the world a civic normality still rare in Bosnia, more than sporting hopes were pinned on it.

On the evening of the match, the 200 or so Newcastle fans, who had been roaming the streets challenging adolescent boys to soccer contests ("Oon ma foot, throo it oon ma foot! Ach, if ye'd a throon it oon ma foot ah cidda kicked it ta kingdoom cawm!") and singing drunken versions of "God Save the Queen," were herded into their own tiny section by tight lines of security personnel as the home crowd heckled them. From the first moments of the match, it was clear that the Brits could pummel the Bosnians, but that didn't seem to matter. The most avid and vocal Zeljo fans, the self-described "maniacs," had taken over most of the south side of the crammed stadium (as dictated by tradition) and were leading the crowd in Zeljo fight songs and a lot of maniacal waving of blue Zeljeznicar scarves. The singing was very loud, but being only a novice Zeljo fan I hadn't learned the words, so it sounded to me like the mooing of several thousand enthusiastic cows.

Then came the kicker, so to speak. No one knows why, but the Newcastle fans started chanting, "Serb-i-A! Serb-i-A!" Surely, people said, someone had put them up to it. Could they have not known that the Serbs had besieged this city for three and a half long years, killing nearly 13,000 people? Surely even soccer hooligans weren't that crass. My friend Svjetlana, who was sitting with her boyfriend, Anes, near the Newcastle section, was certain the Brits had no idea what they were saying. Why, she reasoned, would a small number of foreigners antagonize an already fired-up crowd if they knew that most of the men around them had direct combat experience -- against the very folks whose name they were chanting?

But the Bosnians in the seats near the Brits didn't attack them. They did something much stranger. They began their own counter chant, which went something like, "All Hail to Allah and Osama bin Laden!"

And there you had it, a Westerner might think. Terrorist sympathies in this Muslim-majority city. For us or against us, George W. Bush had said, and the Bosnians, in a moment of passion, had made their choice. Or so it might seem. But the story, of course, is more complicated than that.

When I met Haris Silajdzic, Bosnia's famously philosophical former prime minister, he posed his own post-September 11 question: Will we see the world as a Manichaean struggle between good guys and bad guys, West and East, us and the terrorists? Or will we allow for complexity and nuance, gray areas and a longer-than-30-second description of it all on the evening news? Bosnia, one of Europe's most Muslim countries and arguably the Muslim world's most European, embodies this dilemma perfectly. Provoked, a crowd there may very well shout, "Osama!" But the real yearning is for some other option, for permission to be both European and Muslim, to feel grateful to America and resentful toward her, to be conflicted, to be complicated.

When the 1995 Dayton Accords ended the slaughter in Bosnia and began the rebuilding of its devastated cities and the re-creation of a civil society, it was understood on all sides that the task would take years of international supervision and billions of donated dollars. The country was divided into two cantons, run by a tripartite government and officially overseen by an international organization, invented for that purpose, called the Office of the High Representative (OHR). And so it remains.

But even before September 11, Bosnia began to lose cachet. And as soon as the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the nation-building project in Bosnia abruptly slid to the remote reaches of international (and especially U.S.) attention. Reliable figures are impossible to come by, but United Press International concluded this summer just what most Bosnians suspect: "As global interest wanes, [the country] is likely to face a precipitous decline in international aid. This will result in an economic crash akin to the one experienced by Cambodia when the [United Nations] withdrew in 1993."

One need only walk down the street to see why the Bosnians feel forgotten. Parliament is a crumbling five-story building with missing facade panels and jagged shell holes. A bombed-out high-rise stands adjacent, its upper stories barely a skeleton and its lower ones draped in yellow police tape, looking like a fraternity prank gone gruesomely awry. Clumps of razor wire and tank traps still lie scattered on the plaza in front of it. Everywhere buildings are peppered with bullet holes, and that -- combined with a 40 percent unemployment rate, the exit of more and more nongovernmental organizations and charities, and a steady decline in the number of U.S. and NATO troops in the area -- has kept rumors flying that the Americans mean to bag the entire Bosnia project.

In August, U.S. ambassador Clifford Bond was trying to send soothing messages. It wasn't easy. Thomas Miller, the ambassador to Bosnia during the Clinton administration, had been a real go-getter, always volunteering somewhere, taking a very hands-on approach to his position. He was popular among Bosnians for being plainspoken to the point of embarrassment, and for genuinely caring about the country's future. He was a tough act to follow, and Bond's retiring personality, complicated by the general impression (shared by much of Europe) that the Bush administration could give a rat's behind about foreign policy, only added to the difficulty.

Yet Bond had one unusual (for an American) quality in his favor: his love of soccer. He decided to attend the Zeljo-Newcastle game and, in a populist gesture, to sit in the non-VIP seats. The problem: The only reserved seats in the stadium were for, well, very important people. To get any other seat, you had to arrive several hours in advance to stake your claim. And Bond, while not wanting to seem VI was a little too I a P to mix for that long with a stadium full of screaming, singing Zeljo fans. The solution: The ambassador's bodyguards would arrive a few hours ahead of time and secure about 20 seats for Bond and his entourage.

Great theory, hard to execute. Although the entourage arrived an hour in advance to occupy most of the seats, the bodyguards were risking death-by-stampede to hold them. Even with 20 people guarding three or four empty seats, quarrels broke out, and it was only upon hearing the words "U.S. ambassador" that group after group of Zeljo supporters grumpily backed down. It didn't help that the seats chosen, while not actually in the VIP section, were directly below it, and consequently some of the choicest spots in the stadium.

It was a classic case of backfiring diplomacy and emblematic of America's attempts to spin and re-spin its post-9-11 role in the Balkans.

OHR spokesman Julian Braithwaite, from Britain himself, finds it ironic that the popular Bosnian opinion is that the United States wants out of the Balkans. America, he says, has renewed its interest in Bosnia since September 11, albeit within an altered frame.

"If you're looking at the region through the prism of fighting against terrorism, then the region has a strategic importance," he says. "The Americans understand that if they want to fight terrorism, they must [bring] the rule of law" to weak states such as Bosnia where illegal networks -- whether of terrorists, drug smugglers or traffickers in Eastern-European women -- exploit loose borders and corrupt officials to pass easily into other European countries. "Bosnia is the Achilles' heel of Europe, and actually the West," Braithwaite says.

It's also a place where Muslims make up 44 percent of the country's total population and about 80 percent of Sarajevo. Bosnian Muslims (often referred to as "Bosniaks") have traditionally been a fairly secular group. But the 1992-1995 war embittered interethnic relations and strengthened ethnic ties, pushing Bosnia's Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslims away from civic identities and toward more fundamentalist varieties of their respective religions. Moreover, many fervent Islamic fighters traveled to Bosnia from Arab countries to help the nation's Muslims during the war, and hundreds ended up settling there.

For Bosnian politicians, cozying up to the United States used to mean peppering your speeches with words such as "multiethnic" and "tolerance" and "rebuilding." Now it means offering assurances that you were out whacking terrorists even before the towers fell. It's an odd switch to make, and when Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnia's Muslim prime minister at the time, announced shortly after September 11 that people with terrorist ties were indeed lurking in Bosnia and that he intended to root them out, he was roundly criticized by other Muslim leaders. They said he was turning Bosnia's globally perceived victims into suspects. The country's ultranationalist Serb and Croat politicians have been trying to do exactly that ever since.

"9-11 gave wings to the forces who committed war crimes here. Now they're acting as if they were forerunners in the war against terrorism," says Sulejman Tihic, a prominent Muslim politician. "Our war was successful thanks to publicity and to America, which is a multicultural society and respects those values. And then in one day we lost that support."

Earlier this year, Bosnian authorities raided several Islamic charities and closed three of them, all on the U.S. list of 240 organizations that finance terrorism. One such raid in Sarajevo provided U.S. officials with grounds to arrest the chief executive of the Chicago-based Benevolence International (BI) at his residence in Illinois. (BI is the first charitable organization in the United States to face criminal charges in the war on terrorism.) And in October, U.S. troops from the peacekeeping force in Bosnia arrested Sabahudin Fijuljanin, a Bosniak with suspected links to the al-Qaeda network.

But most telling was last year's bitter controversy over the so-called Algerian group. In January, Bosnian officials arrested six men -- five Algerian born and one originally from Yemen -- for possible terrorist ties and stripped them of their Bosnian citizenship. When Algeria refused to take them, the United States immediately stepped in and offered to house them -- at its prisons at Guantanamo Bay. The Bosnian Supreme Court ordered the charges dropped for lack of evidence, and the Bosnian Human Rights Chamber, made up of local and international experts, ruled that the men should not be extradited. Nonetheless, Bosnian authorities handed them over to the U.S. Embassy, igniting protests outside the embassy gates and scathing coverage in the local press. One magazine, Dani, published a cover illustration of Uncle Sam urinating on the Bosnian Constitution, which Dani's editor claims cost the publication American funding. (The U.S. Embassy vehemently denies this.)

At least one person in Bosnia believes that there is a place for the new nation not as a stalking-horse but as an emissary between Europe and the Muslim world. He is Reis ul Ulema Mustafa Ceric, the highest Muslim official in the country. On the afternoon of the soccer game, I met with him at one of the central mosques in Sarajevo. His assistant showed me into a sumptuously carpeted room where Ceric, seated on a long, pew-like bench, smilingly invited me to sit on a similar seat near him. He had a disarmingly round, pink face and very dark brown eyes.

Ceric said he was deeply affected by the events of September 11 and had been to Ground Zero to pray over the site. He studied in the United States and feels indebted to America for teaching him, as he put it, "to be proud of myself, of my culture, my religion." He is pulled wrenchingly in two directions -- East and West -- he said. But that tension is exactly what he believes holds great potential for Bosnia.

"I read recently," he said, that the most intelligent man is the one who "can hold two opposed theses in his mind." His voice was quiet. "We Muslims living in Bosnia and Herzegovina must be capable of holding two opposed views, [to] remain sane and sound." This ability was spoiled a bit, he added, by long years lived under a totalitarian regime. But a "double awareness of your existence," he believes, is the only path to normalcy in Bosnia.

Suddenly he became visibly restless. I glanced at the clock. Almost 5 p.m. Ceric was watching the time, too, and his pink features split into a grin. "It's Zeljeznicar with Newcastle. I'm going to the match today," he said. He added that if Zeljo won by a goal or tied, "or even if they win by one goal, it will be great for us."

A few hours later, at a stadium with thousands of chanting Zeljo maniacs, 200 Newcastle fans and one non-VIP American ambassador, someone tossed a black cat (a symbol of bad luck even in Bosnia) onto the field. The poor, skinny creature skittered up and down the sidelines and for a while distracted everyone but the actual players from the game. Then, at a moment when both teams were clustered at the Bosnian goal (which was the case for most of the match), it darted out onto the field, turned a few bewildered circles, and slunk across the Newcastle goal line and through the net at the back. The crowd leaped up as one and cheered just as if it had been a ball and not a cat in the goal.

A bad omen for the Brits, if one was prone to superstition. Which Newcastle was not, apparently, as the English scored a goal just before the second half and went on to win, 1-to-0.

Europe is winning, too, in the hearts and minds of Bosnians. But this is a complicated country, and forcing its people into us-versus-them decisions will undermine the nascent civic identity that everyone knows is needed here. It will not foster a tolerance for difference and individuality, under the umbrella of a common law, which is as much in America's interest as in Bosnia's. In the end, if we do not allow Bosnia to be complex, to have multiple allegiances, we not only betray our own values but risk encouraging an extremism that Bosniaks once eschewed. The United States would do well, in its new role as nation builder, here and elsewhere, to take a hard look at Sarajevo.