SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Edmond Offermann’s dream turned to reality after 20 years on Friday when the landmark Sarajevo cable car, destroyed early in Bosnia’s 1990s war, resumed services up Mount Trebevic above the capital.
The brand new gondola brought joy to young and old alike and not least to Offermann, a wealthy Dutch-born American businessman and philanthropist who was a driving force behind the restoration project.
“This is a special feeling,” Offermann told Reuters aboard the cable car, peering down at the rugged, sometimes snow-capped scenery around and trying to recognize places he remembered from his last ride up in 1991, just before the war broke out.
“I am thrilled with this whole experience. I thought in 1998, when I first visited Sarajevo after the war, that a cable car had to come back.”
The cable car first went into operation nearly 60 years ago, ranking Sarajevo among the few cities where one could reach pine forests in just 10 minutes from an urban city center.
But during the 1992-95 war, when nationalist Serb forces besieged Sarajevo, often with artillery fire from the slopes of Trebevic, the once favored destination for recreation turned into a source of fear and terror.
For years after the war, fear of lingering land mines and a lack of usable roads meant that few Sarajevans dared to return to Trebevic for the walks, picnics and winter sports they enjoyed before the conflict. Trebevic, in fact, was the venue for the bobsleigh course in the 1984 Winter Olympics.
But more recently, after the last mines were removed, roads rebuilt, and new hotels, restaurants and a leisure park opened, demand for a restoration of the cable car surged.
On Friday, scores of people queued to ride up the mountain.
“This cable car was opened in 1959, when I was born, so both of us are of the same age,” joked Jasmin Geljo, a Bosnian actor who now lives in Canada. “I am so glad it will run again and people will experience what my generation and others did - to have in just 10 minutes the whole city lying beneath your feet.”
New York-based Offermann’s Sarajevo-born wife inspired him to do something for Sarajevo’s recovery from the war, and in 2008 he began looking into how to resurrect its famed cable car.
In 2012, with funding from the Swiss Embassy in Bosnia, he organized the transport of a dismantled cable car from Switzerland to Sarajevo and offered his own donation of $4 million to reassemble and launch it. But city authorities expressed little interest at the time and the project stalled.
Only after the election of Mayor Abdulah Skaka last year was the project dusted off and Offermann’s donation snapped up, according to his wife, Maja Serdarevic Offermann.
“I can’t believe this is happening, it took us an eternity,” she said, rejoicing at seeing the cable car running again just as during her childhood when it would have whisked her whole family up Mount Trebevic for a picnic.
Skaka, 34, who grew up during the war in the vicinity of the cable car’s starting station, said the project became a priority for him after he took office and fulfilled a childhood dream.
“This is a great day for the city of Sarajevo,” Skaka said at the opening ceremony. “We have renovated the last destroyed symbol of Sarajevo. We are removing an invisible border line today. This is a monument to love.”
Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich