The Untold Origin Story of U2’s Legendary Sarajevo Concert

On the 20th anniversary of U2’s concert in Sarajevo, Bob Guccione Jr explains the chaotic road to the show Bono called “one of the sweetest nights of my life."

It was twenty years ago today—September 23rd, 1997—that U2 played its legendary show in Sarajevo, soon after the hellish three-and-a-half-year siege of the city.

Time, as it often does, has slobbered all over the occasion and preserved it in a larva of saccharin, revisionist myth. In reality, the road to that historic night—and it was a great night, and really did change the morale of a country—was anything but simple and sure, and in the beginning the band didn’t want to do it.

I know all this because it was entirely my idea.

In the first days of January 1996, soon after the first wars in the former Yugoslavia ended with Serbia’s capitulation and acceptance of the Dayton Peace Accord, I met Bono in Jamaica. A friend brought me to Chris Blackwell’s house, Goldeneye, the former home of immortal writer Ian Fleming. On a side table in the dining room was an original copy of a guide to birdwatching in the Caribbean, written by James Bond, whose great contribution to the 20th century was that he provided Fleming with the deliberately bland name he was seeking for his licensed assassin.

We’d never met before, but Bono and I hit it off tremendously. This meant that after going to a number of outdoor Reggae dancehall shows, we returned to Blackwell’s house and drank until 5 in the morning, talking about Irish writers, women and drinking. The next morning/noon, as we were all eating a late breakfast, Bono said he had just returned from a trip to the now freed Sarajevo and been inspired. “You should cover it in SPIN, Bob” he said. I told him we had covered the wars there three times, including sending Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic to write about the conflict in his ancestral Croatia. But Bono was right, we should cover the aftermath. While I was trying to think of the right reporter to send there—Bono suggested, intriguingly, Sinead O’Connor’s brother (maybe he didn’t like Sinead O’Connor’s brother?). I decided I wanted to go myself.

So, on a wintry February evening, having convinced fashion photographer Loren Haynes that it would be fun to come to photograph the youth who had survived the siege, we left New York for Sarajevo. We spent 8 days there, chronicling the indomitable and stripped down human spirit of people who made it through the war, for an article I wrote for SPIN called “Life After Death.”

Soon after I returned, Bono made an introduction to the Bosnian Ambassador for the UN, Muhammed Sacribey. He’d been the heroic Foreign Minister for Bosnia during the war and was one of the people most responsible for forcing the Dayton Peace Accord. Mo, as Sacribey insisted he be called, liked my article and in early 1997 suggested we host a party at the UN for diplomats and rock stars. Honestly, that made sense at the time. I brought whoever I could get to come, and Mo gathered a small army of Ambassadors and UN aides.

I didn’t know what to expect but figured at some point we would make remarks. What actually happened was the UN Secretary General sent a video of remarks celebrating the auspicious gathering of our two great cultures. The Deputy Secretary General spoke, followed by the Ambassadors for South Africa and Holland, each more exquisitely articulate than the last. Then Mo spoke eloquently, powerfully, viscerally, rendering everyone in the room --- the UN’s cafeteria, which is the size of a small airport hangar --- emotional putty in his hands. Now it was my turn to speak. To put this in context, this would be like your high school band closing Woodstock.

I went up to the lectern and suddenly remembered that it was exactly a year to the day when my friends and I stole a UN van in Sarajevo, on the last day of the Muslim month of fasting, and a night when the standard curfew was lifted to allow the Bosnians to celebrate. “Don’t worry, we gave it back,” I said, pointing out that UN security in Sarajevo was generally so lax that the locals regarded UN vehicles as a sort of DIY, free taxi service.

I spoke about what Sarajevo had been like weeks after the final ceasefire, when most residents didn’t believe the war was over.  They had lived through false cessations of hostilities before, only to drop their guard and be slaughtered in the streets. I described the resilience of the people who survived --- not quite courage, because it was more than that and courage alone had not saved many of their neighbors, family or friends and lovers. And then I said that Mo and I wanted to put on a concert in Sarajevo, watched and heard around the world by people who would never know what it was like to live in that cold darkness, and who would now, figuratively, be standing next to the people who did, and feel a kinship with them, and never again allow the world to ignore them in peril.

As I came down from the platform Mo said to me “We’re putting on a concert?” “We are now,” I replied.

Mo and I did not know how to put on a concert. There were perhaps not two other people on the planet less suited to do pull off that stunt. But we had Bono in common, so decided we’d ask U2 to do it, and work it out from there. I asked Paul McGuiness, their manager. He said no. It wasn’t right for them, they would have to respectfully, and regrettably, pass.

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So, Mo and I more or less forgot about it. Sarajevo had suffered enough without the two of us creating a new disaster on their fragile, recovering infrastructure  Then, some months later, McGuiness tracked me down in a San Francisco hotel and said “is that still something we can set up? Bono and the boys want to do it.”

Christened in purpose, Mo and I went to Sarajevo together in July 1997 and, due to the high regard he was held in Bosnia, met with everyone who was important. After a couple of days, we realized we really were clueless and that surely people would die because of us. This was, after all, a recovering war zone and our grand vision of bringing together Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, who had most recently been murdering each other, to hear live music in an open-air setting, was not without imaginable pitfalls. We spent a surreal July 4th at the US Ambassador’s residence in Sarajevo and the next day we sat down in a small, smoky cafe and discussed our rather dire situation.

Inspired by desperation, and with the concert about two months away, I proposed we tell Bono we had absolutely no idea how to do this, and that it was going to be an epic disaster, and inconceivably dangerous to flood the city with warring ethnicities. This, I reasoned, would cause Bono to panic and immediately take over, and send his people in to set everything up, and the professionals would bail us out. That is what happened.

The second thing I suggested was that we handle the security, the one area U2’s team would not have an advantage. Since Mo knew all the gangsters who ran the black market through the city’s labyrinth of tunnels throughout the siege, we could pick the people who would keep a lid on a potentially explosive moment.  We set up a round of meetings, in rooms so fogged with cigarette smoke that after 30 or so minutes you couldn’t see the people you were talking to, blindly directing your comments to the last voice you heard. We emerged from one particularly comical such summit most duly impressed with the flint-like hardness of a certain Mafioso, and congratulated ourselves on finding our man.

That’s how U2 came to pull off one of the most memorable concerts of the last 50 years. Bono and the boys explained at the time that they identified with the people of Sarajevo – “We come from Ireland, it's a small country and we have been divided also. We are trying to wrestle our world from the fools of the past and give it to the wise men of the future…Music doesn't know political divides and music has a joy that ignores borders and defies borders even, this is what we've always stood for as a group," Bono said.

Rather than indulging in an earnest, somber set-list focused on war and healing, the band decided to offer the citizens of Sarajevo a celebration by bringing their ongoing global Pop-Mart tour to the city. Bono’s voice was shredded and he often spoke the lyrics that 45,000 Croats, Bosnians and Serbs who filled the Kosovo soccer stadium sang in solidarity. The band followed Pop Mart tour set list, except for replacing The Edge’s enigmatic Karaoke segment with, appropriately enough, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” They played the hits: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Will Follow”, “New Year’s Day”, “Gone”, “Desire”, “Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, which Bono prefaced with the crowd-pleasing incantation: “Viva Sarajevo! Fuck the past, kiss the future,” --- a slogan for a T-shirt perhaps still waiting to happen.

In their first encore, they sang “With or Without You” and “Miss Sarajevo”, written by the band and Eno and performed only once before, with Pavarotti at a benefit concert in Italy in 1995. The song is about a beauty pageant held underground during the siege, to create a kind of surreal normalcy in the hell of their daily lives. U2 almost didn’t play the song, unsure until moments before coming back out, afraid they wouldn’t get it right. (They didn’t but nobody cared.)

At the time Bono called the concert "one of the toughest and one of the sweetest nights of my life" and offered that losing his voice completely by around the eighth song may have been a blessing in disguise, because it "allowed room for Sarajevo to take the gig away from us." Larry Mullen and The Edge claimed it a highlight of their lives, Mullen saying “if I had to spend 20 years in the band just to play that show, I think it would have been worthwhile."

And the security worked perfectly.