Originally published in Outside (January, 2012)
“We’ve got permission to use the cannon!” says Ismar Biogradlic, the coach of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s national snowboard team, with a smile. “Hurry up!”
A snowcat waits for us, orange lights flashing in the dusk. We hoist a coiled length of hose onto the flatbed and climb up. Biogradlic, a 37-year-old man with close-cropped graying hair and a ring in his left ear, taps the roof of the cab and yells “Go!” The driver revs the engine, and the cat jerks forward like a tank.
After hours of negotiations, Biogradlic has finally convinced the state officials who own Bjelasnica, a ski resort near Sarajevo and a former Olympic venue, to let him use a snow gun. It’s early February, normally the snowiest month in Bosnia’s Dinaric Alps, but Bjelasnica’s trails are barely covered and entirely devoid of skiers. This is problematic for Biogradlic. In less than a week, he is scheduled to host a slopestyle and big-air event for the Snowboard Europa Cup—a small-budget European version of the X Games—at the resort. But Bjelasnica’s management, a couple of decades and one significant war removed from the salad days of the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, is pinching pennies, and Biogradlic has only a few hours with the snow gun.
As we grind up the hill, the snowcat churns up a stew of gravel and dirt. High on the peak, the skeletal remains of rusted-out chairlift towers that haven’t operated in 20 years are silhouetted against the evening sky. Around us, in the surrounding forests, red signs issue a harsh warning: MINES! KEEP OFF!
At the top of the terrain park, we jump off the snowcat. “Quickly,” Biogradlic says, shoving a pickax into my hands. “Start digging a trench.”
The snow gun, brought up by another cat, is set strategically over the slope. While I dig a protective trench for the hose and cables running between the hydrant and the gun, Biogradlic makes sure the connections are tight. Enes Vilic, 26, one of Bosnia’s best freeskiers, meets us at the top and begins helping.
It’s now dark, and the temperature has finally dropped below freezing. A slight wind picks up, bending the tops of the dark pines. It feels peaceful, until the control lights of the snow gun come to life.
“Ready?” Biogradlic yells.
“Ready!” Vilic yells back.
“Let’s have some fun then,” Biogradlic says. The scream of the snow gun pierces the night. In a few moments, the hose grows stiff with water, and a thick white beacon of millions of fine ice crystals shoots up into the air. It’s snowing in Bosnia.
ISMAR BIOGRADLIC and Enes Vilic have a wild idea. The two men, both Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, hope to revitalize their country’s alpine-sports scene, which was the pride of the Balkans until the Yugoslavian civil war ripped it apart. Biogradlic has spent the past decade fostering youth snowboarding, coaching the national team and courting international events like the Europa Cup, one of the major circuits of the International Ski Federation. Vilic, meanwhile, takes a less formal approach: the 26-year-old skier leads a freewheeling, multiethnic group of snow punks called Madstyle Team.
The crew seems a bit ragtag—its members came together to get discounted lift tickets at Bjelasnica and Sarajevo’s other resort, Jahorina, and can seem as dedicated to beer as to skiing. But Madstyle has recently begun to attract big sponsors for their competitions. What’s more, they represent a sentiment that’s palpable upon setting foot in Sarajevo: the desire of Bosnia’s youth to move on from the brutal event that for years has defined their country in the eyes of the world.
“We imagine this developing—not just snowboarding and skiing, but other sports like skateboarding, rafting, rock climbing,” says Vilic, who is lanky and handsome and who wears a blue bandanna around his neck at all times. “The plan is to put things on a larger, social level. It’s the community that counts.”
It’s worth remembering that Sarajevo has had a love affair with alpine sports dating back to the Ottoman Empire. In the 19th century, bored kids would hike up the hills to do liguranje, a precursor to the luge. By the 1930s, when Bosnia was part of Yugoslavia, a confederation of Balkan states, the mountains filled with skiers who built lodges and jumps on 6,300-foot Mount Jahorina, about 20 miles southeast of Sarajevo. The resort got its first chairlift in 1953, and Jahorina quickly became an international ski destination, hosting the European and World Cup circuits. In 1978, the city was awarded the XIV Winter Games. To host the event, the government built Bjelasnica on the opposite side of Sarajevo in 1982.
The Games almost never happened. On the morning of February 9, 1984, a day after the opening ceremony, Sarajevo woke up buried in snow. Three feet had fallen overnight in the mountains, overwhelming the men’s alpine course at Bjelasnica. The conditions were similar at Jahorina, the venue of the women’s alpine events. Winds of 125 miles per hour buffeted the high peaks.
In response, 36,000 organizers and nearly every able-bodied citizen of Sarajevo threw themselves into the battle against the weather. They carried picks, shovels, and brooms and stayed warm with home-brewed rakija, a highly flammable local moonshine made from plums. They cleaned up the roads to the venues, dug out the buses from the drifts, and groomed the trails.
It worked. Some 1,400 participants from 49 nations took their shot at a medal. The IOC president at the time, Juan Antonio Samaranch, proclaimed the Sarajevo event “the best-organized Winter Games in the history of the Olympic movement.”
Then came the war. Nationalistic fervor had been simmering in Yugoslavia for a long time, with each of the country’s major ethnic groups—Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs—driven by centuries-old dreams of their own pure state. In 1991, the worsening economic situation and a few radicalized politicians blew the lid off. Hostilities broke out in Croatia, and it wasn’t long before Bosnia and Herzegovina went down the same road. The Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic, struck first. In 1992, with the whole world watching live on TV, military and paramilitary bands pillaged villages and laid siege to Sarajevo, shelling Muslim neighborhoods—war crimes for which Karadzic would be charged after he was finally captured in 2008.
The Olympic venues were not spared. Bjelasnica and the surrounding villages, where Muslims and Serbs lived side by side, became the front line of the attack. In 1993, the resort’s lifts were wrecked, the slopes mined, and the hotels torched by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by the notorious general Ratko Mladic. The Olympic bobsled track on Mount Trebevic, above Sarajevo, became a sniper’s nest for the Serbs, who fired down on the Muslims below. The edifice of Zetra Hall, the site of the hockey and figure-skating events, was shelled from the hills. Its ice rink served as a makeshift morgue, the wooden seats providing material for coffins.
When the war ended in 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina won independence, but it was divided into two autonomous, mutually hostile entities: the Muslim-and-Croat-dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. Even the resorts became spoils of war: Bjelasnica was given to the Federation, while Serb-controlled Jahorina, which was left largely unscathed by the conflict, joined Republika Srpska.
Only recently have the old wounds begun to heal, thanks in part to a new generation of kids who don’t hold their parents’ grudges. Vilic is one of these kids. Though his family was kicked out of its Sarajevo home by Serb paramilitaries and had to move to another neighborhood, his memories of the war are surprisingly fond. “It was the best time,” he says. “Everything was anarchy! We stole gas from the cars! Of course, during shelling we would hide in the basement.”
Vilic used to be part of the National Youth Alpine Team and won third place in an International Ski Federation race in 2003. Still, career options for a would-be professional skier are slim in Bosnia. These days, Vilic studies architecture in Sarajevo, works for a ski-repair service, and spends the rest of his time in the mountains with Madstyle Team. Sometimes they go to Jahorina, sometimes to Bjelasnica.
“We don’t care about who is Bosniak or Serb or Croat,” he says. “Madstyle is a few good friends who have a passion for winter sports. That’s all.”
A STUFFED HAWK stares out at us from the wall with glass eyes. Biogradlic, Vilic, and I are the only customers in the only open bar in Bjelasnica. We sip hot bean soup and guzzle beer, waiting for the snow gun to do its job. Biogradlic looks nervous. His cell phone rings every few minutes: various teams for the upcoming Europa Cup calling with requests. The South Africans need help with their Bosnian visas; another team wants to change hotels.
“This year the Austrians are coming,” Biogradlic says, taking a nervous swig from his bottle. “I wouldn’t be worried if it were just guys from Balkan countries—we could have a few beers and talk things over. But the Austrians can be grumpy if the conditions are bad.”
Biogradlic fell in love with winter as a ten-year-old kid watching the Sarajevo Games. He competed in two Olympics in luge, representing Yugoslavia in 1992 at Albertville and the newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1998 at Nagano. He couldn’t compete at Lillehammer in 1994; he was busy fighting off the Serbs. During the war, he sustained gunshot wounds to his wrist and shoulder.
Biogradlic eventually dropped the luge, in part because the bobsled track on Mount Trebevic was in ruins. He began snowboarding, borrowing his first board from a Greek friend, and soon opened a snowboard shop in downtown Sarajevo, in 1999. Three years later he organized the national team, which is now composed of three riders, ages 17 to 28. The members have finished in the middle of the pack in big-air and slopestyle events at Europa Cup competitions. Soon after I left, in April, they went to the Junior World Championships in Valmalenco, Italy, where they finished dead last in slopestyle.
Hanging around Biogradlic, you get the feeling that snowboarding is his life. It’s difficult to get him to talk about anything else, except for his wife, Nina, and his young son.
At the bar, I ask him about his role in the war, and he clams up. “I don’t want to talk about this,” he replies curtly. “A lot of time has passed, and we need to move on. People should just get a snowboard or skis or whatever and enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Snowboarding is not nationalistic. Everybody can get together on the slopes. All we need is a bit more snow and investment in the sport.”
Vilic chimes in loudly: “Our government is investing a lot of money into soccer, but they don’t seem to care that much for snowboarding and skiing.”
Indeed, funding the alpine resurgence has been a challenge. While Jahorina, which has less varied and exciting terrain, has received some $30 million in the past three years for improvements like a pair of six-seat high-speed lifts, Bjelasnica has wallowed. Organizations such as the International Rescue Committee provided $100,000 for reconstruction, but since 1997 only a fraction of the mountain has been open on a regular basis. One of the renovated lifts, a triple, runs about halfway up the slopes and then abruptly stops. A few hundred weekend warriors come regularly from Sarajevo for the challenging terrain, but there are only six usable runs. Beyond that, in the woods, the mines from the war haven’t all been cleared yet.
The past few years have seen modest improvements at Bjelasnica. The resort finally bought snowmaking equipment and built a 2.6-million-gallon water reservoir. Plans are under way for a gondola that would run to the top of the roughly 6,800-foot mountain, which offers about 2,600 vertical feet of skiing. Still, investment in the resort’s infrastructure pales in comparison with that going on at the base of the hill, where two new hotels and a group of slick condos have already been built—second homes for Sarajevo’s nouveau riche. The problem, Biogradlic tells me, is that the mountain is still operated by a cumbersomely bureaucratic state company. “Except for a few decent guys, the whole organization is clumsy,” he says. “Just look at what we have to go through to make some snow.” He sighs and gulps his beer. “Let’s check out the cannon,” he says. “Maybe there’s enough snow already.”
THERE’s not enough snow. When I return to Bjelasnica a few mornings later, rivulets of slush and dirty snowmelt run down the terrain park. The thermometer reads 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Though the rails and boxes are still in place, the large kicker at the finish resembles a beached whale. Biogradlic and Vilic have been here all night, spreading artificial snow over the slopestyle course. Biogradlic runs up and down the terrain park, a shovel in one hand and a cell phone in the other. Vilic shapes the approach to one of the boxes, scrambling around on his knees. A few riders from Sarajevo have come to help, including Vilic’s buddy Nikola Krneta, a 28-year-old Serb who is one of the founders of Madstyle and a member of the national snowboard team.
“I’m starting to believe that the lack of snow is the government’s fault,” says Krneta, who wears a black bandanna around his neck and a curved barbell in his left ear. He pops open a beer can. “Two more days of sun and I’ll switch to writing poetry.”
Just a month ago, Madstyle organized a huge jib contest, the Madstyle Games, in downtown Sarajevo. It took them more than six months to land sponsors like Toyota and Red Bull, who threw in a few thousand dollars. Madstyle invited riders from Slovenia, erected a 35-foot ramp, and littered the city with promotional posters. When the day arrived, the temperature was 54 degrees. The event took place, thanks to a giant refrigerator truck that brought hundreds of bags of snow from the mountains. But now we’re in the mountains; there’s no snow to import.
“If the temperature doesn’t drop, we won’t be able to make snow tonight,” Biogradlic says with a sigh.
While he and Vilic debate the options, six young snowboarders show up. They are far too fair-skinned to be Bosnian.
“Hey, what’s up?” calls out a teenager in a San Jose Sharks sweatshirt. “I’m Matt from Idaho. My friends and I were at a Bible camp in Switzerland and decided to come here—teach snowboarding and help out.”
“Yes. We prayed to God, and he told us to come here,” says another kid, who looks to be about 18. He has blue eyes, freckles, and a wispy blond beard.
The Bosnians—who, it would be fair to say, have seen it all—are stunned. The evangelical boarders are here with a local adventure group called Nova Zora (“New Dawn”) run by an American guy from Georgia, Merle “Tomas” Jones. One of the boarders has a smiling Jesus on her helmet.
“All right,” Biogradlic tells them. “Go to the big kicker and start clearing out the dirt and larger stones.”
In a few minutes, the evangelicals are scrambling over the muddy hump, stones flying in all directions. Soon their bright jackets are covered in dirt. One by one, they sit down on the side.
Biogradlic looks at them and shakes his head. “I think it’s time to call it quits,” he says, pulling out his cell phone. The Europa Cup at Bjelasnica will be postponed.
TWO DAYS LATER, on a warm Saturday afternoon in Sarajevo, streetcars covered in ads for soda and bubble gum trundle along the city’s main boulevard, Zmaja od Bosne, once known as Sniper Alley. Except for a few pockmarked facades left unrepaired for lack of money, there are no visible reminders of violence. A new skyscraper, the Avaz Twist Tower, rises over the minarets of the old town. A dump truck crawls its way toward Sarajevo’s downtown skate park. Seeing it, a girl in a black hoodie yells, “The snow is coming!”
The truck humps over the curb and stops in the middle of the park. A crowd of about 30 skiers and snowboarders awaits. Vilic and Krneta are here, along with some friends from Madstyle Team. So are the jibbers for Jesus. Biogradlic, beat from the week’s efforts, stayed home.
Vilic and Krneta had suggested the idea: If we can’t have a Europa Cup, let’s bring a truckload of snow to the skate park in Sarajevo and have our own jib session. Sublime is blasting from Krneta’s parked Audi, the four doors wide-open, the hatchback full of beer.
“You have to make the best of the worst, dude,” says Matt Gencarella, the evangelist from Idaho, sipping from a can of Sarajevsko beer. He has BFC/DFL tattooed on his wrist. It means Boarders for Christ/Down for Life.
“The sports I do, I do for God,” he declares.
“Funny, I’ve never been in a mosque or a church,” Vilic says, grinning wide.
The truck unloads the snow to cheers. A couple of guys pick up shovels and begin covering the approach ramp with powder and preparing the landing. Some snow is put aside for a makeshift beer cooler. In 20 minutes, everything is ready. Waiting patiently on top of the ramp, snowboarders and skiers drop in one by one, sliding down the flat box at the end. The snow is wet, and there’s hardly any speed on the approach, but Vilic, Krneta, and the others manage a few stylish tricks—nose presses, lip slides, blunt slides. Beers are downed quickly and often. The skiers talk about girlfriends and boyfriends, jobs, Jesus Christ, marijuana farming. Now Dubioza Kolektiv, the hottest reggae-rock band in Bosnia, thumps from the stereo. When dark descends over the city, people pull their cars up and shine their headlights on the ramp. The party goes on. Then, one by one, the minarets on the hills come to life for evening prayer.
“This is absolutely the worst winter I can remember,” says Krneta, popping another beer. “But I love it anyway.”
To see more of Alex Tehrani’s photography, click here.