Restoring hope: ‘Why can’t we recreate the old energy of Sarajevo?’

When the siege of Sarajevo began in 1992, Ratko Mladić’s Bosnian Serb army took up positions in the mountains surrounding the city.

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Photograph: Oleg Popov/Reuters

For his headquarters, Mladić chose Hotel Igman, a breathtaking piece of brutalist architecture that was the jewel of the 1984 Winter Olympics. The hotel was part of the Olympic village, a base for ski jumpers and alpine skiers, but Mladić – now serving a life sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity – used it to oversee the shelling of the city and his enemies used it as a prison and execution site. During the four years of the war, the hotel was blasted and bombed, and since the fighting stopped it has lain derelict, ignored by everyone except graffiti artists and the occasional tourist.

Now, as the 30th anniversary of the siege approaches, the hotel is set to be restored to its former Olympic glory.

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The Igman complex was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo and damaged during the war in the 1990s. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Hotel Igman was sold last week, at the 13th attempt, by the Sarajevo authorities. The new owners, who include former Bosnia-Herzegovina international footballer Emir Granov, paid 5.1m Bosnian marks (£2.2m).


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Granov told local media that they will spend a further £6m on renovations, in the hope that tourists choose Sarajevo as a new destination.

One of Granov’s first decisions will be to consider a proposal from a rival bidder, Dimitri Hegemann, the owner of Berlin’s Tresor nightclub, to include a music venue in the refurbishment.

“I wanted to turn it into a cultural lighthouse,” Hegemann said. “It should be a place where people can overcome ethnic differences – it is a special place with a special power. But I don’t have to own it.”

The hotel had 162 rooms and a cinema that Hegemann believes would make a perfect venue, and create the same conditions as clubs such as Berlin’s Tresor and Berghain, which were created after the fall of the Berlin Wall and provided a place for young people from West Germany to mix with their eastern bloc counterparts.

Such a club would bring tourists to Sarajevo, Hegemann believes, and he has interest from international DJs such as Jeff Mills and Mark Reeder to create an outdoor festival this summer among the ruins of the ski jumps in the hillside forests.

“The problem is that the young creative people from the region are emigrating. They feel they have no future there and no space to test themselves and experiment,” said Hegemann.

Sarajevo has not prospered since the Dayton peace accords ended the war in 1995, and there are few cultural landmarks left. The Skenderija centre, where Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won gold in the figure skating for Great Britain, was renovated in 1999 after sustaining light damage during the war and includes a concert venue, but there is now talk of selling it.

About half a million people are estimated to have left Bosnia-Herzegovina in the past six years, and a survey by the United Nations in November found that nearly half of the country’s under 30s are considering emigrating.

Christian Schmidt, the UN high representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, warned last year that the country was in danger of breaking apart, with the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik threatening to create a new army. The US imposed sanctions on Dodik last week, and the EU has 700 soldiers from its Eufor peacekeeping force stationed in the country.

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British pair Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean on the ice at the Skenderija centre during the 1984 Winter Olympics. Photograph: Colorsport/Rex/Shutterstock

Edin Forto, the prime minister of the Sarajevo canton, one of the country’s 10 regions, is desperate to bring investment to revive the city’s fortunes. Granov and his backers opened another hotel on Mount Igman in 2020, and Forto is pleased the Igman hotel has finally been sold to a decent investor. But he believes Hegemann’s plans are important for Sarajevo.

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“We aren’t going to be the new Berlin but we can be the old Sarajevo, because it was a cultural hub in the 80s,” he said. “Everyone wanted to come here and work here and create theatre, music, the film industry. There was a buzz. Why can’t we just recreate this energy?”

Sarajevo used to be the centre of rock and pop music, but that has ebbed away, he said. “It seems like people in the villages won the war. Urban culture is dying. Now the most popular thing here is turbo-folk. I think it’s disgusting. We were the hub of urban popular culture and now we’re the hub of nothing. Now we import culture from Serbia and not the best kind. I don’t want to sound pessimistic – I’m in politics to change things. But we need allies.”

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