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Friday, August 4, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Rising Sarajevo finds hope again

Seattle Times staff columnist

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina — The walk from the Ali Pasha Mosque, up Kosevo Street, toward the Olympic Stadium is both familiar and foreign.

It had been more than 22 years since I last made the walk on a frigid afternoon, heading for the opening ceremony of the first Olympics I was fortunate enough to cover. And the walk, the city, the world has changed dramatically since then.

In February 1984, a combination of excitement and nervousness carried me up that hill, past the comfortable middle-class apartments that looked up to the white pelt of the snow-covered hills surrounding the city.

Sarajevo was alive that afternoon, warmed by the welcoming people who seemed to understand this was the best chance they would have to introduce their gem of a city to the world.

"You can only imagine how I felt," Nikki Sabljica, owner of a carpet store in the city's historic and bustling Old Town, said recently. "I was a teenager and I did odd jobs during the Games. And there was so much excitement.

"Imagine what it was like for me to see people like Phil and Steve Mahre walking our streets. The Olympics was the biggest chance we had. We need something like that maybe again some day."

In 1984, Sarajevo became the Northwest's Olympics.

Phil Mahre of White Pass won a gold medal in the slalom and his twin Steve won the silver. Seattle's Debbie Armstrong won gold in the giant slalom and a rebel from Portland named Bill Johnson won downhill gold.

Edmonds' Rosalynn Sumners won a silver in the figure-skating event that introduced a vivacious East German named Katarina Witt to the world.

It was a beautiful Olympics.

In Sarajevo, this crossroads city, which still was part of Communist Yugoslavia, American sportswriters were struck by the idea that Muslims, Jews and Christians lived so peacefully together.

But Communism fell and Serb nationalists, many of them from outside of cosmopolitan Sarajevo, took over the hills and shelled, sniped and terrorized the starkly exposed city from 1992-95. They wanted to make Sarajevo part of an ethnically cleansed greater Serbia.

Now, some 11 years after the siege, the city looks dramatically different. The comfortable apartment buildings on Kosevo Street are pockmarked from machine-gun fire.

Approximately 11,000 people died in the siege, including more than 1,500 children, and many of the once-open spaces and hills around the Olympic Stadium, including a nearby soccer field, are lined with row after row of stark white stone crosses.

"Many of the Serbs who were fighting us, I went to school with them," Sabljica said. "Now when I see the ones who came back I think, 'Shame on you.' "

Less than a month ago, before the Sonics were sold to a group from Oklahoma City, I revisited Sarajevo. Thinking about Nikki Sabljica and the courage of the people who survived the siege lends some needed perspective as Seattle frets about its NBA future.

During the siege of Sarajevo, people weren't worried about losing a basketball team. They were worried about losing their way of life, their country, their lives.

Sabljica, a businessman with no military experience, became a commander in the Bosnian militia. Four times he was critically wounded. Once he was shot in the back. He still has shrapnel in his head.

"If he had been an American, he would have been given the Medal of Honor," said Florida businessman Lou Montgomery, who was working with the U.S. Department of Defense in Sarajevo during the siege and befriended Sabljica.

He, not Sabljica, told me the story of his war wounds.

"It was a horrible time," Sabljica said. "But when my 12-year-old son Kerim asks me about it, I don't tell him very much. I tell him to forget it. I tell him to think about the future, not the past."

Kerim was born during the siege, in May 1994. His malnourished mother had difficulty nursing her son and, when he wasn't fighting, Sabljica would leave the safety of his home to buy overpriced powdered milk sold on the black market by United Nations soldiers.

"I really believe if it weren't for the Americans my son would have died," Sabljica said. "They made the peace. We love the Americans. We love [President] Clinton. Without their help, there would have been no chance."

And now, like any proud father, Sabljica talks about his son, a skier who has qualified for next winter's Junior World Cup in Topolino, Italy.

"He has a chance to become one of the best skiers Bosnia has ever had," Sabljica said.

Kerim is a symbol of Sarajevo's renaissance.

This resilient city has come back to life. In the evenings, the Old Town's pedestrian mall, once a dangerous ghost town, is pulsing with shoppers and tourists and local people taking advantage of the long, warm evenings.

Teenagers, wearing hip clothes, walk the pink-marbled street alongside women in burkas. The outdoor cafes are brimming with people and energy.

Still, the city, which now is about 70 percent Muslim, is in transition. The Bosnian government is unstable and the Bosnian Olympic Committee, which bid for and lost the 2010 Olympics to Vancouver, B.C., still is finding its way in this new world.

Kerim Sabljica's skiing future is affected by this uncertainty. He needs money if he is to have the same opportunities as the world's other young, talented skiers.

He needs money so he can ski the glaciers in Austria in the summer and use the same equipment as his sport's prodigies. He needs more sponsorships, so he can come to Aspen next winter and get more coaching.

"I think of the personal sacrifices that Nikki and so many others in Sarajevo made and I want to help," said Montgomery, who is Kerim's main sponsor. "Nikki is a folk hero of the Bosnian militia and I get a hell of a lot of satisfaction from helping his son. Still, he needs more sponsors."

Both the Olympic Stadium and Zetra Hall, where Witt and Scott Hamilton won their gold medals, were heavily damaged during the war. Both have been rebuilt and Zetra Hall is a world-class facility again.

Last month, I peeked through the gate into the stadium and remembered shivering through the opening ceremony as a combination of nerves and deep freeze got to me.

Sabljica and his city were so full of hope that day. It was impossible for anyone to imagine the terror that would envelope that place a mere eight years later.

Now the walk up Kosevo Street is full of the reminders of the ravages of war. But it is also is a tribute to the resilience of the people of this city.

Slowly, Sarajevo has come to life again. And young talented people such as Kerim Sabljica are giving promise to its future.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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