In Sarajevo, Death and Love-15; ‘Tennis Nut’ Braves Serb Shot and Shell to Publish Magazine

The Washington Post
March 23, 1993

SARAJEVO – The siege of Sarajevo has been hard on tennis fans.

They can no longer play their favorite sport or watch it being played. They can’t even bang a ball against a wall. And most of them haven’t a clue about who won the U.S. Open or whether Andre Agassi still wears funny clothes.

Enter Damir Bilalagic, a self-described tennis nut who has been dodging snipers and shell holes all over town in an oddball commitment to publish a tennis magazine. In a city with little electricity and plenty of artillery fire, it has been a risky labor of love.

“I like tennis more than air, more than food,” Bilalagic said. “It is my life.”

This month, he defied the skeptics and achieved the impossible as a basement printing press pumped out 1,000 copies of Tennis magazine, featuring 30 pages of color and a cover emblazoned with a graphite tennis racket superimposed on an AK-47 assault rifle — the weapon of choice in Bosnia’s year-old factional war. A note from the editor informs readers, who need little reminding, that the magazine was published under “difficult circumstances,” including daily shelling by Serb nationalist forces besieging the city.

Written and printed entirely in Sarajevo, Tennis magazine is Bilalagic’s answer to hopelessness, a testament that despite a year of shelling and sniping and dying here, life goes on in a defiantly altered form, like the exertions of a tennis fanatic trying to play through a squall.

“We have to survive these times,” Bilalagic said. “We have to become involved in something that makes the time pass. It’s what keeps us here and ensures that we will survive.”

Sarajevo has been cut to pieces by the Serb siege while the pulse of the city has throbbed at minimal levels — enough to sustain life and no more. People have adjusted to living miserably and fearfully, and they realize that the horror might continue for a long time.

And so musicians perform at occasional concerts, actors gesticulate on basement stages, and journalists churn out a daily newspaper whose size and color varies with the amount of paper and ink available.

There was even a fashion show a few weeks ago, and it attracted a large contingent of combat photographers who were glad to have a break from their usual bloody subjects. They pulled off their bulletproof vests, doffed their helmets and watched pretty girls walk past. Some of them forgot to take pictures.

There were only three models, and they wore only the best clothes they owned. The show took place in a newly reopened pizzeria situated at a sniper-plagued intersection, so some patrons burst in at full run.

It all might seem like ridiculous stuff to outsiders, Sarajevans say. The city could be overrun any day, and many people don’t have enough to eat. So natural questions are why is the band still playing on, why are people eating pizza — and why is Damir Bilalagic now planning to stage a tennis tournament?

“I am a little bit crazy,” Bilalagic confessed. “This kind of project can only be done by somebody who is twisted, but in a positive way.”

Bilalagic, 43, is a wiry man with dark hair and a touch of genius that made him a successful entrepreneur before Serb militiamen occupied his neighborhood, chased him out of his fashionable apartment and separated him from his cherished U.S.-made graphite rackets.

His two sons are in Germany, he said, playing tennis almost every day, and his wife is in neighboring Croatia. Bilalagic moved into his sister’s apartment here, persuaded a few friends to help him launch the magazine, then threw his life and several thousand dollars into the project.

“We want to start activities that will bring us back to life,” said Igor Baros, a Bilalagic associate who ran a chain of eyeglass boutiques before the war. A tennis net is stored in his bedroom, ready to be set up on a nearby playground when the weather turns warm.

The magazine carries lots of tennis news, including a column of “Winner’s Tips” about how to best your opponent; a story about Croatian tennis star Goran Ivanisevic, and an article about the destruction by shellfire of Sarajevo’s main tennis complex. Two local players who joined in the defense of the city are profiled. One of them grouses, “The war completely spoiled all my plans.”

Bilalagic calls his magazine a “little piece in the mosaic of Sarajevo.” It is a blood-stained mosaic, to be sure, and difficult to comprehend for anyone who has not lived under the daily threat of death.

“I have to explain something important to you,” Bilalagic said, his eyes taking on a mad sparkle: “You cannot understand us.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.