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Tuning in with Thomas Conner

U2's reprise of 'Miss Sarajevo': The story of a song

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The May 26 arrest of accused war criminal Ratko Mladic, after 16 years on the run, brought back memories for Bill Carter -- none of them cheerful.

"Pure evil," Carter said, describing the infamous Serbian general now on trial, accused of genocide during the Yugoslav Wars. "It's a big deal for him to finally be captured. ... He killed a lot of people I knew."

For nearly four years -- 1992-96, the longest siege of a modern capital -- Serbian forces blockaded and bombed the capital city of Bosnia & Herzegovina, while nearly every day snipers fired at citizens. More than 10,000 were killed, many more wounded. Carter, an American writer and filmmaker, was living in Sarajevo at the outbreak of the war.

He related his experience in an acclaimed documentary, "Miss Sarajevo," and a book, Fools Rush In: A True Story of Love, War and Redemption. But while there, Carter tried to tell the world what was happening to Sarajevo. He knew we wouldn't necessarily listen to him, but he bluffed his way into a meeting with someone we were listening to, U2's singer Bono -- a desperate gamble that connected one of the world's biggest rock bands to one of the world's greatest humanitarian crises.

Within days, U2 was broadcasting live video of Sarajevo's plight during its 1993 ZooTV concerts in sold-out arenas throughout Europe. Bono then not only produced Carter's film, he wrote a song for it -- "Miss Sarajevo," recorded with famed tenor Luciano Pavarotti -- which U2 is now performing on tour for only the second time in North America, now using footage from Carter's film.

The video for "Miss Sarajevo" with U2 (Passengers) and Luciano Pavarotti

with Interpol
• 7 p.m. July 5
• Soldier Field, 1410 S. Museum Campus Drive
• Sold out

Attention seeker

On a couple of occasions, and as recently as a 2009 interview, Bono has cited "Miss Sarajevo" as his favorite U2 song. A few reviews of the current leg of the band's 360° Tour claim the song is a highpoint of the evening. But it's rooted in a low point of Carter's life.

billcarter063011.jpgHe arrived in Sarajevo in 1993, part of the Serious Road Trip, a humanitarian organization delivering food to desperate Sarajevans. He himself learned what it's like to be hungry and addled by a war zone.

"I had a stash of chocolate baby food that I lived on for months," Carter recalled. "I lost 30 pounds, some hair and a tooth. ... The people in Sarajevo, you know, after years of constant bombings, snipers -- they were completely stressed. Adrenaline is a very powerful drug in the body, and when shells are constantly going off around you, you get a high dose. You do they every day for years, and you had kids there who were 18 with gray hair."

Carter's film depicts the constant terror (it opens with Carter dodging sniper bullets), as well as how Sarajevans coped with it, muddling through daily life and resorting to surrealism and defiant, dark humor. It culminates in the Miss Sarajevo pageant, which featured contestants in bathing suits posing for a photo and holding a banner that read, "Don't let them kill us."

Carter, like most Sarajevans, felt the world was ignoring the city's plight. (As U2 guitarist The Edge later said in an August 1993 radio interview, "At that time, Sarajevo was not really on page one of any of the international newspapers. It was like page seven, and you really had to go looking for it.") He sought a way to get the world's attention.

While working on film footage one summer day in '93 at the Sarajevo television station, a rare day with electricity, he saw U2 on TV being interviewed, describing their futuristic new tour.

"The answer from one of the band members," Carter writes in Fools Rush In, "was something like, 'A great deal of what's behind this tour is the idea of addressing the idea of a united Europe.' What Europe were they speaking of? Europe was ignoring their geographical ass down here in Bosnia."

U2's tour was coming to nearby Verona, Italy, in a few weeks. So Carter "borrowed" some letterhead from the president of Sarajevo TV and faxed the band an interview request, as if he actually worked for the network. He expected nothing, but weeks later a return fax came. Bono would love to chat before the show.

An excerpt from the film "Miss Sarajevo"

Satellite of love

Carter escaped Sarajevo in a cargo plane to Verona, where he sat down with Bono for 20 minutes. The backstage interview footage is included on the DVD of his "Miss Sarajevo" film. "We don't seem to learn" from history, Carter says. "That's the subject of a lot of our songs," says Bono.

Hours later, Carter was in a villa with the band, teaching them the intricacies of the Serbian-Bosnian conflict and the human toll being exacted. With several days before the next U2 concert, Bono was ready to jump in the car with Carter and go to Sarajevo, see for himself, maybe play an impromptu gig. Carter dissuaded him -- any large gathering of people in Sarajevo was an easy target for Serb missile batteries.

But the band wanted to do something, and a relationship was established that resulted in an idea.

"I think it worked because I didn't ask anything for me," Carter said. "I told Bono, 'Don't give me money. That's not gonna do sh--. We have to reach people's consciousness. That's our only hope, or we're just spinning our wheels.' That appeals to U2. ... So I was like, the biggest band in the world wants to come to Sarajevo, what do I do? What if we could take Sarajevo to them instead? What if we could link to their concerts by satellite and just tell people what was going on?"

On July 17, 1993, that's what happened. In an experiment fraught with challenges technical (Sarajevo's electricity was unreliable), logistical (for Carter to get to the TV station in Sarajevo meant darting through "Snipers Alley") and faithful ("I was just some crazy f---ing longhair kid who they met one night and was slightly nuts, probably -- what if I went on the first broadcast and pulled my pants down?" Carter mused), Carter and two friends stood in front of a camera in Sarajevo and appeared on a giant screen at U2's concert in Bologna.

They talked about the refugees under attack, the need for water and food, and Carter told a story about a friend hit by a grenade. For 10 concerts over the next month, the last one in London's Wembley Stadium to 100,000 people, they did the same thing -- broadcasting the news from Sarajevo in the middle of a U2 concert.

Artistically, it was awkward, The Edge later confessed. "We knew it was a risk in the sense that putting something that potent and that shocking in the middle of a rock and roll show, which is ultimately about having a good time and seeing a band play a few songs, could completely scuttle the show. On some nights, it almost did. ... But what we also, I suppose, hoped to achieve from it was maybe to generate a little bit more media coverage of what was going on there. And, of course, now events have overtaken us and Sarajevo is right on the front page again."

Bill Carter discusses the satellite linkups from Sarajevo to U2, plus video of the first one.

Archival footage

After the war, U2 made it to Sarajevo, at last, playing a concert in 1997 attended by members of the various factions who'd been shooting at each other a few years earlier. Bono called the concert "one of the toughest and one of the sweetest night of my life." Carter thinks it was "the most important concert they ever played, that an Belfast."

The whole experience was certainly important for Carter. If it hadn't happened, if he hadn't gotten in front of Bono: "It would have been bad. That summer of '93 was the worst. The war and the heat and there was no water. I was watching people die. It would have ended badly for me."

Now the song "Miss Sarajevo" reappears on U2's tour -- a tour that in April became the most successful tour of all time. Ticket sales for the 2009-2011 jaunt are expected to surpass $700 million, besting the previous record held by the Rolling Stones Bigger Bang Tour, 2005-07, which grossed $554 million. (Tuesday's show was rescheduled from its original scheduled date of July 6, 2010. Several dates were postponed last year after Bono suffered a back injury.) The performance now features footage from Carter's film, which he was able to finish in U2's Dublin studios.

"I'm not sure why they chose the song now," Carter said. "They pick songs extremely carefully. It's a unique song in their repertoire. It doesn't sound like anything else they do. ... But it also has some resonance again. With the footage, people are asking questions again. What is that about? Whatever happened in Bosnia? If they ask, they get answers, and they learn, and maybe it helps in some weird way for something like this never to happen again."

U2's performance of "Miss Sarajevo" on the current 360 Tour.

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This page contains a single entry by Thomas Conner published on June 30, 2011 12:00 PM.

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