By Daria Sito-Sucic
SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Flares and fireworks lit up the Sarajevo sky as thousands of inhabitants flocked to the city's streets to celebrate deep into the early hours of Wednesday morning in recognition of Bosnia's successful World Cup campaign.
The scenes of utter joy provided a stark contrast to the brutal 1992-95 siege of the Bosnian capital, which produced some of the most harrowing images of a conflict that claimed the lives of around 100,000 people in a former Yugoslav republic that remains hostage to nationalist and political interests.
Finally it was an opportunity to release an outpouring of elation for Bosnians, who reached their first major football tournament as an independent nation when Tuesday's 1-0 win in Lithuania booked their ticket to next year's finals in Brazil.
Donning national team shirts and wrapped in flags and scarves, Sarajevo inhabitants and those who poured into the city from other parts of the country celebrated the historic success as a seemingly endless motorcade blocked streets once littered with victims of snipers and mortar shells.
"This is a lesson to everyone in Bosnia what can be achieved with hard work, persistence and talent," Austrian diplomat and High Representative of Bosnia Valentin Inzko told FACE TV in the Lithuanian capital Kaunas after the joyous national team mobbed their coach Safet Susic.
"This victory reaches beyond the boundaries of sport and it is a message to all good-willed people in the country that a better future is possible. The citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina can be proud of their national soccer team," he told the Sarajevo-based television channel.
Nearly two decades after the conflict, Bosnia remains a dysfunctional country marred by ethnic divisions, political instability and economic hardship, with the bickering of rival Serb, Muslim and Croat leaders slowing down its progress towards the European Union.
A U.S.-brokered peace deal silenced the guns but created a system of ethnic power-sharing so unwieldy that the process of governing often grinds to a halt, stifling recovery and reform in a country where 28 percent of the population are unemployed.
The prospect of playing in the World Cup has, in the short term, put aside worries about delayed wages and low pensions, and instilled hope that politicians can follow in the footsteps of the national football team, a rare beacon of light and unity.
"This victory means everything to me," 51-year old physician Sanja Mandic told Reuters as jubilant youths flocked towards the giant fan zone in downtown Sarajevo, where the team joined supporters in late night celebrations after returning from Lithuania.
"I love them so much, they are the only bright thing in our lives and a glimmer of hope in these terrible times."
With a football pyramid resembling a house of cards and devoid of any real quality, Bosnia owes its impressive achievement to exiled household names such as Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko and Stuttgart forward Vedad Ibisevic.
It was no surprise that the top scorers in the qualifiers carved out the winning goal with Dzeko setting up Ibisevic to score from close range much to the delight of 5,000 Bosnian fans, who vastly outnumbered the home faithful in Kaunas.
"I want to thank all those who made the trip and also all our fans who are now celebrating in Bosnia and throughout the world," Dzeko said after the final whistle.
"We have shown just how mighty Bosnia is," he added.
Susic, once a gifted forward who scored 21 goals in 54 appearances for the former Yugoslavia and represented them at two World Cups, was barely able to hold back the tears as he addressed an improvised news conference at Sarajevo airport.
"This is fitting reward for all the hard work we have done in the past four years since I took over and I think that we deserved to go through after scoring 30 goals in 10 games," he said.
"All credit to the players and also to our fantastic fans, who made this possible because they turned up in droves not just on home turf in Zenica but also in every away game too."
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Belgrade; Editing by John O'Brien)