Azem Kurtic | BIRN | Sarajevo

The death of Karim Zaimovic, a 24-year-old writer and journalist who was hit by shrapnel in Sarajevo in 1995, represented a huge loss to the cultural scene that helped the Bosnian capital survive under siege.

It was August 1995 and Karim Zaimovic was walking past the Military Hospital in the Marijin Dvor neighbourhood of Sarajevo when the attack happened.

At that point, the city had been under siege by Bosnian Serb forces for more than three years, and it was getting close to the end of the war. The shelling at that point was not intense, but a piece of shrapnel from one of the projectiles that fell on a rooftop some 100 metres away wounded Zaimovic.

“I was in the Vecerenje Novine [newspaper] newsroom when I heard the explosion,” Semezedin Mehmedinovic, Zaimovic’s friend and colleague, told BIRN.

“I would later on find out that Karim was hit by a shell fragment, a really tiny one, which put him in a coma for several days,” he added.

Zaimovic passed away on August 13, 1995, depriving the Bosnian cultural scene of one of its most notable talents.

Mehmedinovic had first met Zaimovic in 1984. At that point, Zaimovic was 13 years old and Mehmedinovic was editor of the cultural magazine Lica (Faces).

Zaimovic started to write for Lica; according to Mehmedinovic, the teenager was a huge fan of comicbooks and that’s what the majority of his articles were about.

“He was a prodigy, with interests that were far above comprehensive for his age, and we all were fascinated by him,” Mehmedinovic said tearfully.

In the years that followed, Zaimovic would grow with the cultural scene of pre-war Sarajevo, quickly becoming an inseparable part of it.

‘In his own world’

 According to Mehmedinovic, Zaimovic was shy and introverted – “in his own world”. But when he wrote, Zaimovic was very open, making connections that many didn’t see but describing things in a way that was understandable to everyone.

In the pre-war period, the young Zaimovic presented and moderated book launch events by important authors who wrote about culture and subcultural phenomena.

“We were all fascinated by him and his brain. We just could not comprehend how such a young person could have such interests and knowledge,” Mehmedinovic said.

Zaimovic wrote for numerous publications, starting with Lica in 1984. Later he would join daily newspaper Oslobodjenje, where he also covered culture and comicbooks in particular.

In the early 1990s, he was an occasional correspondent for Radio Sarajevo and TV Sarajevo, the then public broadcaster for the Federal Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Just after the war started in 1992, Zaimovic joined the political magazine Dani, together with Mehmedinovic. Later, the two men would also set up a cultural magazine called Fantom Slobode (Phantom of Freedom).

Telling stories on air

In 1993, Zaimovic joined Radio Zid, a Sarajevo city station that was influential during wartime, where Mehmedinovic was working as an editor. Radio Zid broadcast his shows until he died in 1995.

“Karim came with the idea for a show that he would both host and produce,” Mehmedinovic recalled.

“It was an interesting conceptual show, somewhat atypical for wartime, in which he actually wanted to tell stories that somehow play with history,” he added.

The show was called ‘Josif i njegova braca’ (‘Joseph and His Brothers’), a reference to a novel by Thomas Mann. During the broadcasts, he would spin out imaginative fictional stories based on real-life events, sometimes aided on air by Mehmedinovic.

His scripts and writings for the show were posthumously published by his friends as a book of short stories called ‘Tajna džema od malina’ (‘The Secret of Raspberry Jam’), which has been acclaimed as one of the best examples of fiction written during the Bosnian war.

 A youth unlived

 The artillery and sniper attacks on besieged Sarajevo, like the shelling incident that killed Zaimovic, were mainly conducted during the day.

Civilians were fired upon while buying food at markets, doing their gardening or cleaning the streets. They were shot at while attending funerals and while riding in buses, trams and ambulances or on bicycles. The attacks were not a response to any military threats.

For Mehmedinovic, who knew Zaimovic since he was a boy, the most painful thing about his early death was the missed opportunities.

“The most important days of his life were marked by the war,” Mehmedinovic said. “He never got a chance to fully live his potential, to fall in love, form a family, or see what he could do.”

He recalled how it was raining around the days of Zaimovic’s funeral and commemoration. “I was with his father when we were putting his coffin into the grave, which was full of cold water. I remember wearing sandals that day, and I think I can still feel that cold when I think about it,” he said.

“I really struggled with it because mentally, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I remember the commemoration that we made, and I remember having a small breakdown, and I think that was the reason why I left Sarajevo,” he concluded. He moved to the US in 1996 but returned to Bosnia in 2019.

The year after Zaimovic died, the Karim Zaimovic Foundation was also founded with the aim of safeguarding the legacy of his name. Its primary objectives include awarding scholarships to exceptionally talented students in the spheres of culture, the arts, literature and journalism, while also offering support to budding talents.