New Musical Express OCTOBER 11, 1997 - by Matt Smith


U2's PopMart extravaganza takes an emotional detour into Bosnia. Fifty trucks of gear, Miss Sarajevo, a giant lemon and Matt Smith roll up in town, too. "I'd like to think the message," says Bono, "is that music is beyond politics..."

As the PopMart plane, with giant lemon on its tail-fin and supermarket shopping trolley on its cockpit, comes into focus above the picturesque hills surrounding Sarajevo, the gaggle of domestic press huddle on the tarmac below and let out a cheer.

The plane lands and the passports are unloaded. A pile two feet high. Then come the band. A crowd immediately forms around Bono, and the soundbites begin.

"Thanks for giving us the lend of your city for the evening. I hope we treat it better than the rest of the world did during the war," he says.

"What is the message of the gig?" a local journalist asks.

"I'd like to think the message is that music is beyond politics."

"What do you expect?" enquires another, as the singer autographs the insignia of a French soldier's uniform.

"I expect a rocking town. because before the war it was about music. After the war it's gonna be about music. That's why we're here. That's our job."

Bono introduces us to a woman who has alighted from the plane with the band. This is Miss Sarajevo, Inela Nogic, who reveals later that her presence today was her mother's idea. "She heard they were coming and said, 'Send him a fax.' So I did and here I am."

She's trying to pick up studies put on hold for years because of the war. "You have to finish somethings in your life," she says defiantly.

For many, the plight of the Bosnian people was brought home as vividly by U2's Zoo TV tour satellite link-ups with the city of Sarajevo throughout the summer of 1993 as by years of Martin Bell's BBC broadcasts.

The link-ups were put together by Bill Carter, an American aid worker who contacted the band in the hope that their show could be used to highlight the destruction Sarajevo was facing under constant Serbian bombardment.

"It was a case of me being angry and them being receptive," Carter explains. "They really wanted to come and play, but at that point it was out of the question."

This was in 1993, when any gathering was sure to attract the unwanted attention of snipers.

"Instead, I said, 'You have the biggest televisions in the world, let's go live to Sarajevo."

Each day, Carter scoured the city looking for locals to broadcast their reality into whatever stadium U2 found themselves in that night. His journalistic coupe de théâtre occurred at Wembley Stadium on the second of U2's four-night stint in August.

"We'd been going two months. I was beat and I was running out of people. I found these three girls, a Muslim, a Croat and a Serb. One of the girls asked U2, 'What are you gonna do?' There was a pause, and before the band could answer, she said, 'I know what you're gonna do, you're not gonna do anything.'"

The mood in the stadium immediately degenerated. The woman's accusations had fingered a shame in all present that nothing, least of all a rock'n'roll gig, could help to dispel.

"On any great moment in a journey you have to hit a moment where you're being cynical," Carter explains. "The point isn't to end the war, though everyone can have that illusion once in a while. I had it, they [the band] probably had it. Then you take the next step which is you do what you can do and you move on."

What U2 decided to do was to play in Sarajevo.

The bus to the hotel breezes past the rubble of the TV station (from where Carter sent his first fax contacting U2). It resembles a twisted metal and concrete concertina that's squeezed its last. In Sarajevo, the TV station, the parliament building and library are either destroyed or burnt out. But life goes on. The craters caused by shrapnel and shelling have been filled and painted red. Knee-high cardboard 'explosions' - part of a mines awareness programme - rise from the pavement. Before planting heir mines indiscriminately, the Serbs painted many of them bright yellows and reds in the warped hope that inquisitive children would stoop down to pick them up. SFOR, the multinational stabilisation force in Bosnia, scrape up the remains of three people a week thanks to these cheap but effective gadgets.

The Holiday Inn, like the Commodore in Beirut and the Continental Palace in Saigon, has achieved almost legendary status. It was here in 1992 that Serb leader Radovan Karadžic and twelve of his thugs took over the upper floors and began firing at a peace rally in the street below.

A story goes that visiting journalists would rent a room here then sleep in the corridor outside the bathroom, effectively putting three walls between them and anything raining in from the hills. In years to come, hotel staff will doubtless laugh at visiting rock bands' attempts to smash this place up. After all, it's been done over by professionals. The car rental desk in the lobby also offers "Armoured car rental".

"When Bono visited the hotel on New Year's Eve in '95, there were sections where the whole wall was gone," laughs The Edge. "He said he'd be walking down the hall and suddenly he'd be staring into the abyss."

Two days before the gig, U2's trucking crew entered the city in a convoy blowing their horns, cavalry style, as they arrived. This was the first hard evidence that U2 were making good on a promise Bono had made that he'd be back and that next time he'd bring the band. Passers-by cheered.

"When the truck drivers arrived you could see that they were changed men," says Willie Williams, U2's stage designer. "They drove through [nearby Bosnian town] Mostar, which is just obliterated. But the only real hassle they had was with a jobsworth at the border control. This was the peak of his paper-stamping career - fifty trucks and a giant lemon. He held them up for hours."

Brian Eno, whose music school in Mostar has just opened, is no stranger to the bureaucracy and political chicanery that is the norm in Bosnia. "For this gig to take place is quite something," he says. "Every power in this city had to put their backs into it. And it's the first project here where that has happened. Probably because entertainment is a neutral enough quantity for people not to read political things into it. One sure way of nailing your power in a place like this is to dig your heels in and it seems that a lot of people haven't done that. It seems like there's been some real co-operation."

"We came here in March and we were thinking, "This is going to be bollocks, it's just Bono's mad idea," says co-promotor John Giddings. "We were thinking, 'What can we do to make it not happen?' But then we met the people and really got into it, and we wanted more than anything to make sure it happened."

The show, though, was selling slowly until the arrival of the trucks.

"This is a city that's been disappointed so many times there were a lot of people who weren't prepared to believe the gig was going to take place until they saw the stage going up," Paul McGuinness says.

The day after the trucks rolled in, they sold eight thousand tickets. But even though U2 are taking sponsorship for the first time in their career, from Coca-Cola and mobile phone company GSM, the show is making a hole around £500,000 deep in the band's finances.

"Yeah, we were making a loss on this gig," McGuinness admits. "But we knew that going in and getting the ticket price right was critical, 'cos there is huge unemployment here [fifty per cent at the time]. People just don't have the money in their pockets. Even an expenditure of £8 is a major thing for the people of this city.

"We offered to do a benefit gig here," Bono says, "just turn up and do a scratch gig, but they wanted the whole fucking thing. They wanted the lemon."

Before the war, Sarajevo was a multi-ethnic city with a Serb, Muslim and Croat population, a famous centre of learning and culture. But when Jugoslavia started to break up in the early '90s, Sarajevo became an offensive image to those people who wanted separate states. Although U2's visit has been carefully stripped of overt politicising, Bono still managed a brief meeting that afternoon with the Bosnian president, the Muslim Alija Izetbegovic, at which they discussed the meeting point between Christianity and Islam.

"To some extent," McGuinness says, "we should stay out of politics. The history of this region goes back hundreds of years, all the way back to the Ottoman Empire. those are the origins of this conflict. Remember, it was the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand just down the road that precipitated World War I."

Back in Britain, the gig has spurred some cynicism. What, many wonder, is U2's real angle on this? What are they seeking to gain? Notoriety? Sanctimony? Surrealist kudos?

"I don't think you can exploit a war unless you're a black marketeer or a gun runner," McGuinness counters. "We were in touch with sufficient people here to know that it certainly wasn't offensive to the people of Sarajevo."

"I think the humour and the wit of it appeals to them," Bono says. "That was their last defence here. Humour is everything, you know. Laughter is the evidence of freedom in a way; there's a lofty thought for you. And they have such a black, black sense of humour. The first Sarajevans I met told me this joke: 'What's the difference between Auschwitz and Sarajevo? At least there was gas in Auschwitz.' I was like, 'Whoargh!'"

"There's a long tradition of surrealism through the war here," McGuinness says. "The song Miss Sarajevo commemorates something much more surreal than what we're doing. They held a beauty pageant in a bunker in the middle of he shelling. Fingers up to the world: 'You may have forgotten us, but we're alive and we're having a beauty pageant.'"

The path to U2's visit was smoothed by the former Bosnian Foreign Minister and current ambassador to the UN, Muameda Sacirbegovica. Bono originally met him in Italy and, according to Sacirbegovica, "Bono said, 'Have a drink,' and I said, 'Sure,' and he said, 'Well here's my glass.' Somehow in that passing of the glass I think a lot more passed, including what came about as this concert."

Rumours of his and Bono's behaviour in Sarajevo one New year's Eve are legendary. Some even swear they heard President Izetbegovic decry Sacirbegovica and Bono during a new year address to the nation a few days later, referring to the pair as, "morons drunk under a bar-room table."

Sacirbegovica explains, "We spent one New Year's Eve here in Sarajevo. We had a few drinks which, according to legend, has now become a few cases. It was a fun evening, but I think, more than anything else, he got a feeling of what Sarajevo is about.

"There was no hint of a bad comment about how Bono and I behaved. What happened is that Izetbegovic made comments about what he considered to be inappropriately drunken and overly public celebration at a time when the war had ended and we had suffered so much."

Sacirbegovica is happy to see the singer back in the city.

"I've been involved in diplomacy and politics for a long time," he says, "And you're never quite sure of the consequences of the words you say or the documents you sign. One thing I'm certain of is that the U2 concert will only contribute to the good of Bosnia, to the integration of the country and to the happiness of its people. It's wild to see Bosnians enjoying themselves and, I think, having for the first time in a long time a sense of optimism about the future.

"The consequences are long felt and that's good. Too many politicians come in here and they wanna have a piece of paper signed and go out before the TV cameras and say they did something. But the type of feelings, the sense of security, normalcy, integration of the country that this concert contributes to - that can only reap benefits."

High above the Kosovo Stadium, the more-money-than-sense part of the show is about to begin. A gigantic silver lemon rises, lit by a dazzling barrage of runway landing lights. Inside this pod-like 2001 contraption, the four members of U2 stand hidden from the crowd, arms folded in a kitsch Village People stance. Tonight, the conversation revolves around the gig. They're frantically trying to remember the intro to Miss Sarajevo, a song they've rarely played live.

The show is more of a rollercoaster than ever they could have envisaged. Bono's voice gives out big time about four songs in. Two trips backstage for cortisone shots help, but put paid to the singer's original desire to come in and "completely flash-bastard it."

As the full enormity of the situation becomes apparent during New Year's Day, Bono appeals to the audience, "My voice is gone but your voices are strong. I ask you to carry me like you carried each other in those weeks, months and years." The resulting roar is enough to lift the place off its base.

Built on a hill, Kosovo is surrounded by cemeteries. The dead were transferred here from their graves in the stadium at the end of the war. The structure was the only place families could bury their loved ones without the risk of being shot at. Nevertheless, the depth of emotion that engulfs the place as The Edge sings Sunday Bloody Sunday and U2 drift into Miss Sarajevo can only be partly explained by location and circumstance. When Pavarotti's voice booms across the stadium and, on the video screens, the models in Bill Carter's Miss Sarajevo documentary unfurl a banner that reads, 'Please don't kill us', it's impossible to remain composed.

Maybe it's the accumulation of all the horror stories you've heard from citizens that day, the people you've met who've cowered from snipers' bullets under parked cars. People like you and me, who fear for their sanity because they are able to talk matter-of-factly about picking up limbs from the paved areas of a market place where a shell has just landed. People who for three years awoke every morning and just wanted to sit in the basement until they felt an adrenalin rush that made them go out and carry on as close to normal a life as possible. People who to this day still can't fathom why NATO said the war was too complicated to stop, yet when NATO finally did get involved, it stopped almost overnight.

At the end of the gig, while U2 are in their dressing room, another perhaps even more meaningful exchange takes place as around ten thousand troops in the stadium stand and applaud the people of Sarajevo and the crowd reciprocate. Regardless of what you think of U2, the fact that they came and played here means more than any gig, however big or small, I've ever attended. For the people of Sarajevo, it's put their city back on the map.

And for us, and maybe U2 themselves, it's gone some way to assuaging guilt for a war that irreparably damaged the reputation of the UN, stained the name of virtually every European leader and, with it, the inhabitants of their nations.

But if you've been here you'd have felt something different in the air, something triumphant, long after the words left Bono's mouth, blasted from the PA, filtered through the emotional mass of whooping, hollering life in the Kosovo Stadium and echoed throughout every corner of a damaged but undaunted city - "Viva Sarajevo! Viva Sarajevo! Fuck the past. Let's kiss the future."