At this point in our journey, we have seen many things, had many experiences & some of those, as we knew would, have touched us deeply. Few places have affected us the way Bosnia has. As with Serbia, Croatia & the rest of the former Yugoslavia, we thought we knew the story; we had lived through this history period more so than read about it in text books. But as it was in Mostar, our understanding of all we thought we knew turned out to be lacking & what we would learn would be life changing.
Sarajevo is a small, but lovely capital city. Its open squares & touristy old town, as much or more influenced by the Ottomans as the Habsburgs, created a diverse culture, architecture & a style that makes the city all its own. It is the only city where a mosque, church, and synagogue all exist together in the same neighborhood. But alas for me, it was also another city no one warned me had such ridiculous hills. I’ve long given up cute footwear & just schlep around in my tennis shoes when it comes to cities like this.
Sarajevo has more than once been home to conflict. In case you forget your early high school history, Sarajevo was host for the “shot heard round the world.” The assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was shot during a downtown parade and therefore was the “official” start of WWI. For a history nerd such as myself, being on the spot is incredibly cool, though I wouldn't recommend the odd, one room museum - not that exciting.
But of course, being the capital, it suffered immensely under the Bosnian War. In such a war-torn country, there is no escaping the conflict & we were now so entrenched in it from all we had heard in the other countries, we wanted to learn as much as we could from Sarajevo itself. As in Mostar, Sarajevo came under a heavy siege after the referendum to break away from the remaining Yugoslavian republics. Unlike Mostar, the local Bosniaks & Bosnian Croats continually fought along the same side against the Bosnian Serbs. There were no flip-flopping sides here luckily. Unfortunately, as we all know, Sarajevo’s siege was not short but lasted a long 44 months, the longest siege in modern history.
Hearing the words “44 months” is one thing, but understanding what it would be like to be forced to huddle in place for nearly 4 years is completely another. Here we took advantage of the War Scars & New Times walking tour with Neno & Friends. Neno was 7 when the war began on a sunny afternoon, as he described it. When the shelling began, he confesses it was quite exciting to a young boy, who at first was told they were “camping” in their basement alongside their neighbors. He would spend most of his next 4 years inside that basement, estimating he could probably get outside maybe 20% of the time.
On average, 300 shells rained down on Sarajevo daily. “Sniper Alley”, as it was called, and one of the main roads in Sarajevo became a nightmare to travel. A no man’s land developed at the Vrbanja Bridge & was the site of probably the best-known story of the war, Sarajevo’s Romeo & Juliet.
Today, a tongue in cheek memorial to the international community’s assistance during the siege has been erected. It commemorates the food supply drops received, the most infamous being the canned beef. According to locals, once a can was opened & placed in front of the household cat or dog, neither would eat it. Ironically, though the memorial was placed first, the UN Headquarters in Sarajevo now sits directly behind it. We approve.
It is this type of black humor the citizens of Sarajevo are known for. Just a few of the stories we heard included Neno’s mother, insisting on wearing her high heels daily, would say “if I'm going to die, I'm going to look good” when her children cried out she wouldn't be able to run from the shelling. In the beginning, right before the fighting began, a threatening message was sprayed onto the main post office late one night, “this is Serbia,” it read. A few days later, a reply was posted, “no, you idiot, this is a post office.”
It was the little things that kept people going. The “Sarajevo Film Festival” & “Miss Sarajevo” both carried on while the city was under siege.
Though he spent years of his youth locked inside, Neno says he is not resentful, he’d rather just move on. But he says he’s a lucky one & his family survived when many others didn’t. In the end, over 11,000 people died during the siege, over 1,200 of them children. Today, a memorial & the names of those children lives in Veliki Park.
Dozens of parks within the city had to be converted to cemeteries, as was in Mostar, since people couldn't get out to the suburbs to bury the dead.
The most moving though was the Srebrenica Exhibition. Dedicated to the genocide, the ethnic cleansing that took place at Srebrenica. It is one of the only exhibits that has ever brought me to tears. To think such a thing could ever happen again, & right in Europe in the 90’s, is devastating. While Neno is not bitter about his past, he will readily tell you that what makes him angry is watching the same mistakes happening again in the world.
Bosnia surprised us. Though many times it was heavy & it forced us to feel & talk about things that are completely uncomfortable, I now cannot imagine not visiting such a beautiful country. It completely defied our expectations, which I can’t be sure what I originally thought we would find here. This entire region will always have a soft spot in our hearts, & I think & hope we can only encourage more & more people to come.