I really wasn’t sure what to expect of Bosnia, just that I know I’ve wanted to go to Sarajevo for years. I don’t know what initially peaked my interest in Sarajevo, whether it was a film or a news story or a novel, but for whatever reason, it’s been on the top of my list for a while. I finally got lucky and found a cheap round trip and booked it immediately. Once it was booked, I decided to start reading the book Goodbye Sarajevo by Atka Reid and Hana Schofield, who were young girls at the time of the siege, to give myself some more perspective on the Siege of Sarajevo, and what the city and it’s people went through. I also read up on the Yugoslav Wars, the Siege, the war crimes and the different cultural entities within the former Yugoslavia before going.
Despite all my reading, it all seems so faraway and impersonal until you’re there. The scale of the destruction was so intangible until that first drive through the city, from the airport to the Old Town. When you read about something like this it’s all just stats on paper; 1,425 days under siege, 329 shell impacts per day, 3,777 shell impacts on the worst day, almost 14,000 people dead, more than 5000 civilian deaths. There are so many numbers and statistics, and dates and maps, but the numbers are just numbers until you’ve seen the bullet holes and the mortar shell craters, or the graves in the parks, because they ran out of room in the cemeteries.
Bullet holes marred the walls of most of the buildings in the city, especially around the main roadway through the city, known as Sniper Alley during the siege. Sniper Alley was the area of the city most heavily fired upon by the Serbs up in the hills and tall buildings, because it was a wide open roadway with nowhere to hide. Apparently many tourists assume that they’ve left the bullet holes and burned out buildings there as some sort of reminder or memorial to the siege, but in reality, they just don’t have the money to fix them. I suppose there is no logic behind fixing buildings that are still standing when there were so many more that were reduced to rubble. The sheer amount of rebuilding that must have taken place is staggering to me. I just can’t imagine waking up when the war was over and knowing where to start, what to rebuild first.
Sarajevo was an odd melting pot of experiences and feelings for me. Initially, the bullet holes and war damaged buildings gave me one impression, but when we arrived at the Old Town, or Bascarsija, I was offered an entirely new view of the city. The Old Town itself is a strange mix, of old and new, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian, with mosques, churches and synagogues all present. And on top of all of this there are the ever present reminders of the war. For me, much of the Old Town reminded me of all the things I used to love about Turkey, without the chaos that made me want to leave it; there were little coffee shops full of old men wiling away the day drinking coffee and smoking, there were baklava shops and beautiful old mosques, and bazaars selling lamps and carpets and knock off designer purses. There were so many desserts that I used to eat in Istanbul, and I would often hear people using words I understood in Turkish. For me, this part of Sarajevo was like coming home; it was familiar and comfortable. There is a spot on the main street in Bascarsija marked with a compass set into the road that shows East and West, the ‘meeting of cultures,’ and appears as a literal dividing line between the earlier Ottoman portion of the Old Town and the later Austro-Hungarian half. Despite coming under Austro-Hungarian rule though, Sarajevo maintained much of it’s Eastern traditions and atmosphere and the Austro-Hungarians respected the Bosnian culture enough to build their new City Hall in the Moorish style.
I took the Complete War Tour while in Sarajevo, which included all the 1984 Winter Olympic sights, that later became a haunting reminder of better days. In the 80’s Sarajevo was at it’s height, during the Olympics it was on top of the world; and you can still see the Olympic symbols around the city, reminding people of the hope they had before the ugliness of war took over. The symbol of the ’84 Olympics was a stylized snowflake, and it can still be seen as markers in the roads, on the walls in spray paint, and on signs. Only eight years after the Olympic games was when the siege began, and many of those Olympic sites became symbols of how quickly things can change. The ski jumping hills on Mount Igman became a battleground, situated in the hills where the Army of Republika Srpska were stationed, above the city. Now, if you drive up to the ski hills, which are being used again, you can see warnings for all the still active landmines along the mountain up to the ski jumps. Also on Mount Igman are the remains of the Hotel Igman, a once luxurious hotel now reduced to rubble; a massive haunting skeleton of a building, reminding visitors of the impermanence of even the most grand of structures. After Mount Igman, we ventured to the bobsleigh and luge track on Mount Trebevic. The once innovative and impressive track became a artillery position for the Bosnian Serbs during the siege and although they are fully intact today, they are scarred with bullet holes from the fighting, and covered in a layer of colorful graffiti. They have become a colorful symbol of the war and reminder of better days.
The siege is ever present in Sarajevo, and yet so is the incredible will of the Bosnian people; to survive, and to thrive, despite such trauma. As I walked through the city, I saw many damaged streets and walkways, due to shelling. Throughout the city there are shell craters in the roads where the mortars fell, and in the spots where people died, their loved ones filled them with red resin; to commemorate the blood spilled in that spot. The people thought they looked like roses, so they began to call them Sarajevo Roses. I don’t know what kind of capacity it takes to look on something so destructive and see something new, and something beautiful in it. If you walk through the bazaar in the old town you will see decorative carved metal stands and tables, but if you look closer you will see that they are shell casings from the bombs that fell over Sarajevo. These people found these shells, the ones that fell on their city and took the lives of so many, and turned them into something beautiful. They gathered the bullet casings and turned them into little airplanes and pens and keychains, resourcefully turning the mementos of the worst time in many people’s lives into income.
The thing that I took away from my trip to Sarajevo was an admiration for the strength and resilience of the people there, and the lesson that after hardship, no matter the scale, people endure. I would sit in the coffee shops and look out at the people passing and wonder, how many of these people lost everything in the war? How many of them fought for their city, and lost brothers and mothers and children to the siege? How many of them fled the city and longed to return, or fled only to wait for months or years in refugee camps, not knowing if their family back home were safe? The Siege of Sarajevo began the year that I was born, 1992, so anybody older than me might have been there, might have their own story to tell. Sarajevo has so many stories to tell, stories of hardship, destruction and pain, but also of growth and love and the capacity that people have for forgiveness. There have been few places in the world that have affected me as much as Sarajevo did. I have seen and heard of the hardship and ruins of war, I have seen the scars of communism and fascism, and memorials to genocide and mass casualties of war, but I have never seen a better example of what people are really capable of, both for good and bad. The fact that neighbors and families who have lived side by side for generations, even centuries, could commit such atrocities against each other is enough to make me cry; but that they could pick up the pieces of their lives after the horror and destruction, and put them back together, is even more incredible to me. Sarajevo was full of so many things for me; it was new and old at the same time, Eastern and Western in the same place, it felt comfortable and strange, and both heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. One thing I can say with certainty is that it won’t be my last visit to Bosnia, and I am already looking forward to the next time and what experiences it might hold for me.