From Decadent Prewar Sarajevo to Academia in Berkeley and London

Neven Andjelic, a well-known editor of a popular youth radio show in prewar Yugoslavia, managed to leave Sarajevo while it was under siege. After moving to Croatia, he realized that he couldn’t live in the Balkans anymore, so he went further West. Some of Neven’s comments have sparked controversies and harsh criticism in his hometown. This is his story. 

This interview is part our series “That Great Diaspora”, inspired by the Rachel Zucker poem of the same name. On a weekly or bi-monthly basis, we will publish writings from people who have, for one reason or another, found themselves living in another part of the world. We’re interested in hearing stories from people everywhere, so we’re soliciting your essays or your willingness to be interviewed at editor[at] Whether you’re classified as an immigrant, an expat, a migrant worker, a refugee, a foreign student, or an asylum seeker, we want to talk to you, members of That Great Diaspora.


Neven Andjelic, Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Human Rights, London, UK


Neven, before you left Sarajevo, you were the youngest editor of Radio Television Sarajevo’s Youth Program. You enjoyed popularity at the time, since the program was the best-known of its kind in Yugoslavia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). What memories do you have from that period?

Neven Andjelic
Neven Andjelic

There are a few types of nostalgia; one is temporal, while the other is spatial. Both of them influence my memories. I was young before the war, therefore I was prone to idealizing that period which, in fact, wasn’t beautiful. There were inflation and shortages due to the isolated politics of the federative republics that were the most economically powerful, and Bosnia and Herzegovina was sinking into uncertainty and total chaos thanks to the nationalists who were in power. Sarajevo somewhat resembled 1930s Berlin: decadent, with lives at risk, some people leaving town, others subjected to mass fear or at least discomfort; at the same time, there were hedonistic pleasures to experience all over the city. What Sarajevo had to offer was pretty much impossible to find in normal societies, so ironically, we were actually privileged to have an experience that the majority of the world couldn’t. At the same time, I remember a friend from Banja Luka describing his town and mentioning Saigon. So everything was pointing towards war, but I had this Utopian belief that we would be able to change our government the way it was done in Prague, Gdansk, or even Bucharest if necessary.

What happened before you left Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Soon after the war and siege of Sarajevo started, I decided to leave. I was receiving threats because of my role in the citizen protests against the “March barricades”, so I left my apartment right before the actual start of the war [Editors note: In March 1992, Serbian paramilitary units set up barricades and sniper positions near the parliament building. Despite the presence of snipers, thousands of Sarajevans protested in front of the barricades]. During the late hours of April 5th and lasting through to the next day, I was held captive in a government building. I never found out who the gang was that seized us, but it was the first time I felt a rifle pointed against my back.

I was disappointed in people who were stealing, just massively plundering everything that could be found in the shops whose windows had been shattered by the explosions of grenades. Death had already become a part of everyday life; people close to me were killed by sniper shots and grenades. After almost a year, I managed to find out about the change in UN flight rules and was among the first local journalists to leave the city this way. While I was reporting from the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was physically assaulted by the Chairman’s bodyguard. He just didn’t like the way I was doing my job. Not the politician (though probably him too), but the bodyguard.

That showed me what had already become of the society just a few months after the war had started, and I simply had to go. One army was keeping the city under siege and actively endangering the lives of all of us who lived there, and I was obviously very unpopular with the politicians governing the town. While I was in Croatia in March and April of 1993, I had the opportunity to meet most of the public and secret police, against my will. I was physically assaulted right  in the center of Zagreb by someone who called himself a “Muslim Ustasha”. The fact that he felt powerful enough to do that was a clear sign that I should move even further away.

In April 1993 you arrived in London. How did you live those first months and what were you doing?

First off, the city’s interesting. It’s a different culture, society, state. At the same time, it’s normal that I felt in shock, filled with worries about family and friends, filled with pain for close people that I’d lost, and for my former life, which I suddenly started to idealize. These feelings were more acute because I was working jobs that I never wanted to. I delivered pizzas and served breakfast in a hotel. At the same time I was giving talks about the situation in the Balkans and making media appearances, thinking about how to stop it all and make something out of my life. An absurd situation.

In the beginning you’re in the same pot with your friends and acquaintances, but if you want to create something you need to part ways. At least that’s how I thought about it, because you’re losing time by focusing on the past, living with uncertainty and doing nothing for the future. I also have a talent for attracting the type of people who after two beers start teaching me lessons about life and politics, so I backed off in a way, turned to people I really had something to learn from and who don’t claim to know it all. So I ended up at a university, finishing my masters and PhD, and started working on things outside the media. Six years ago I worked at Berkeley. When I introduced myself at one seminar there, I realized that ten other participants used similar words to describe themselves: I work in academia, focusing on international relations and human rights, and for 20 years I’ve been trying to escape from journalism. I still have loose ties with CNN, even though I’ve finally almost managed to escape.

I’ll still ask you for your assessment of the media situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, particularly about Radio Sarajevo. 

There is no quality media in BiH. There are some attempts like Radio Sarajevo, but the higher the quality the less interest there is in the audience. When they decide to experiment with populism, they’re going to be criticized by the intellectual and cultural elite. Not a single media outlet managed to reform itself along with the seismic changes in society. The state doesn’t do anything to educate people, and the society lacks literacy, sometimes in the most basic sense of the word. There are some small, isolated oases left that try to re-imagine life and the media, but it’s hard for them.

Another problem is the misconception that Sarajevo is the ultimate embodiment of BiH. But it actually doesn’t have anything to do with the current divided state. No media outlet in Banja Luka puts any effort into attracting readers or viewers from Sarajevo. And honestly, the Sarajevo media also gave up on their ambitions to reach out, but they still won’t admit it. So they just keep writing about Sarajevo and keep telling themselves that they are in fact writing about BiH. Even if a media outlet tried to reach out to audiences on all sides, they’d almost certainly fail. It’s a reflection of the reality. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one state, though some don’t like this fact. But it’s also at least three separate societies that show very little interest in each others’ problems.

Has your perception of Sarajevo and BiH changed since your first months as an émigré, and how so? What are your hopes for Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Sarajevo was and still is a special symbol, maybe more because of how others saw it, rather than anything it did to deserve it. Perhaps I’ve always been too critical towards the town. Some small signs of that “Sarajevo spirit” have survived, but weren’t enough for me to declare with any enthusiasm that multiculturalism had survived. I found Sarajevo monocultural, and thought that Sarajevans of the same generation belonged to the same culture whether their name and origin was Christian or Muslim. But this opinion was unpopular, even though it was partly correct and should at least be open for discussion.

Now, Sarajevo has indeed become almost monocultural, but in another sense of the word that no one dared to name. I had to say that it’s become a Muslim town. This would be followed by horrible attacks. These were not disagreements; they were attacks, which also revealed a lack of tolerance. The occasional attempt to mobilize the town’s more progressive elements usually revolves around Utopian projects like hosting the new Winter Olympics. If you asked where guests and athletes would sleep, how we would provide local transportation for them, and who would ultimately organize all of it, you’d get some unpleasant reactions. But these are very concrete questions, while the initiatives are but a reflection of lingering nostalgia. The Sarajevo Winter Olympics indeed were beautiful back in 1984, but it seems they won’t happen again anytime soon. Let’s do a thought experiment: Imagine that Sarajevo really was chosen to host the Olympics. What would happen if it was scheduled during Ramadan? Would we force the whole world to set their agendas, business, and habits to suit the needs of Sarajevo’s Muslim congregation?

The Sarajevo authorities are a joke. What message is the mayor sending to citizens when he simultaneously works full-time as a university professor and dean, and still holds public office? No serious town would ever allow that. And this wasn’t imposed by the Dayton Agreement, Dodik, Covic, or whoever the Sarajevo public deems an enemy of the state. This was done by Sarajevo politicians, and it was possible thanks to Sarajevans’ votes. However, there aren’t enough discussions about it, even though these things can easily be changed. Half of the ministers have other side jobs. They’re showing one of two things: either that their government job is very easy, or that they don’t care whether or not they achieve anything for the people. I don’t know of any other country like BiH, where ministers enjoy the benefits of their official position but really work privately somewhere else. Museums are being shut down. Sidewalks are used for parking old cars, so people walk in Sarajevo the way they did in some provincial small town a hundred years ago — down the middle of the street. A serious city government would be able to solve all of this, but they just don’t want to, or don’t have the capacity. Is anyone sending letters in Sarajevo? I see that the mailboxes are all destroyed. Perhaps someone should train the street dogs to be letter carriers. But even that would demand some real work, and when Sarajevo’s officials work they don’t do it for society, but for their private businesses.

The 20-year-old nationalist government has turned all hopes into illusions. Bosnia and Herzegovina will be impoverished, while a few financial-political elites will sell all of the country’s national riches to the world’s neoliberal powers. Actually, this looks like the only certainty. It’s hard to imagine that Nasa stranka (Our Party) could take over the government in Sarajevo, which has been dominated by SDP. I understand the principles they stand for, but the alternative is awful. Ordinary people allow this by constantly giving their votes to ethnic elites. Even though people are dissatisfied with the economy and society, the fear that their national identity might be endangered turns them into a perfect voting machine for nationalist politics.

How do you feel there today? What are the advantages and shortcomings of living in London, compared to Sarajevo?

London provides everything. All the possibilities exist here. Perhaps the most important thing is the anonymity this city provides. You can be and think whatever you want. It is your right. However, sometimes the anonymity isn’t that good, even though it’s attractive. There’s no one there to help you when you’re moving, or when you need someone to hold your shelf while you’re attaching it to the wall. Some simple things become pretty complicated. Recently I had an opportunity to hear a speech from Hillary Clinton. She received an award at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and since I am a member, I voted for her. But the same evening there was a football match between England and Montenegro at Wembley. Even though the two events started at different times, it was impossible to attend both. That’s the problem with London. It’s an ideal city for those who have time and money. The problem is that most people lack one of the two.

That’s often a reason why people leave the city. Another reason is schooling. State-owned schools lack funding and people. And most people can’t afford private schools. There’s also a smaller number of religious schools where the curriculum includes some religious teachings. However, the overall education system is very secular, as well as the society as a whole. Therefore, deciding where to live is easy, because here my son will decide on his own whether he wants to be a believer and which religion is closest to his beliefs, and this won’t be imposed on him through the education system. Right now I think he’s an atheist with very liberal views and a sensitivity for human rights, which he developed in school. Higher education is the second best in the world, right after America, but it’s also become a business. Tuition fees are high, and young people are taking out loans to enroll in universities. A lot of foreigners are coming to Britain and London to study at state-owned universities, which are undergoing a financial crisis due to government policies. I work at a private university and we are in a better situation. Since students need to pay anyway, they’d rather enroll at a private institution where they can have more contact with their professors.

Will you ever return to Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Why? In 2005 I came back to Sarajevo, along with my family. I spent that year with professor [Zdravko] Grebo at the Center for Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Studies and with its Alumni Association, lead by Ivan Barbalic. I spent a wonderful year there and developed hope for Sarajevo and BiH because of the qualities these people demonstrated and their common vision. However, both of these organisations are in a miserable state today, at least compared to the period when I was there. Grebo and Ivan aren’t leading those young people anymore, and I don’t see where the strength would come from that could pull BiH in a good direction. These two organisations are representative of what’s happening to the entire society.

At the same time, Sarajevo is a very charming town, and that’s why the year I spent there was delightful. But I had a choice to make. My choice was either to accept an invitation to spend a year at Berkeley (and then return to London), or to stay in Sarajevo, with all of its uncertainties. Despite Sarajevo’s appeal, I left yet again. I like to come back and feel that charm, but I could never achieve there what I have in London. I am lecturing at the Regent’s University London, and I’m a guest lecturer at universities in the U.S., Canada, Italy, Austria, Croatia, and I’ve been invited to Serbia (I still haven’t been able to go there), but no one calls me from Sarajevo. And I feel sad about that.

If you could take the best of both London and Sarajevo and create a new city, what would it look like?

Sarajevo has a certain character and charm, but everything else should be changed. For example, the doctors are great, but there are no medicines or medical instruments. I would again blame the government, though what has contributed to the state of things is the entire development of global neoliberal capitalism within the process of globalization.

There is talent in Sarajevo, but we lack a system that would make it possible for these people to prosper, something that would benefit everyone. Another question may be whether democracy is the best system, as many indicators have shown that equal access to elections can lead to catastrophe. Finally, our nationalists are a direct result of the democratic vote.

Photo Credit: Zvonimir Barisanin

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Dunja Latinović

Dunja Latinović was born in Sarajevo, where she studied French language and literature. She has been involved in politics and media development projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina, worked as a translator, and took part in producing several documentaries. She has lived in Belgrade, Serbia, since 2009, where she worked with International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX) as a program manager training media professionals, and later co-founded an organization called eProject, which promotes media literacy in Serbia. She currently splits her time between Belgrade and Frankfurt, and makes regular visits to Sarajevo.