Sarajevo 1997

Sarajevo Travel Blog

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Back in June 1997 I spent five weeks backpacking with my good friend Josie from California; travelling through Romania, Bulgaria and the states that prior to 1990 constituted the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.



I was profoundly affected by what I saw in the cities of Dubrovnik, Mostar and especially Sarajevo. In spite of the fact that this was written 10 years ago and the changes since then have been enormous, I hope you will read it in the context of its time and in the spirit intended and find it of some interest.



The border crossing from Croatia to Bosnia Herzegovina was a mere formality and it appeared that visas were not required by any of the mixed company on board our air conditioned bus.

Well A/C was boldly displayed on the side of the vehicle but in the 28 degrees centigrade of a European summer; I couldn’t help but wonder, if it didn’t in fact, stand for “air constricted.”

Our seven hour ride from Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast to Sarajevo would take us through Mostar of the ill fated bridge fame.  Unfortunately with only one bus a day plying this route, exploration was not possible. We had one night in Sarajevo so any diversions were out of the question- Mostar would have to wait.



The scenery is unforgettable the road climbing higher; all the time clawing at the rugged majestic mountains, the Neretva river snaking below, an emerald green in the early morning light. We had come to Sarajevo not totally unprepared for what would greet us, after all who hadn’t witnessed the siege of the city night after night on our TV screens… Well our expectations were about to be redefined.

The first surprise was the sheer size of the city with a population that is 99% Muslim.  The high rises stretch out on either side of the main approach road for as far as the eye can see, a veritable man made canyon of concrete and glass; the previous government’s answer to the housing shortage.  From a distance they appeared neat and well kept but on closer inspection the scars of war were all too evident, pock marked with bullet holes and the occasional gaping hole of a mortar blast. 

Well this did not appear to be the city of death and destruction we’d been led to believe - or was it? 

Indeed it was, this was just the hors d’oeuvre for a feast of devastation that left us speechless.

The downtown area was a litany of burnt out and shattered modern high apartment blocks, gaunt and silent.

Other lesser buildings were just blackened, empty shells.

The vista was once breathtaking and somewhat surrealistic, almost like being on a movie set.

We could not find one building during our short stay that was left untouched by the ferocity of war.  Some of the scars had been repaired, but not to hide them, in fact more to illustrate them.  The mortar crater in the old market place where so many died that fateful morning was filled in and painted a disturbing shade of red……..  A symbol of remembrance or defiance? We never did find out. 



Through Dean, a friend from USAid, we were to learn that Sarajevo was a city of impossible contrasts, complexity and contradiction.

  For instance, German Deutschmarks are at once the accepted currency with the Bosnian Dinar!

It took his 4x4 all the power it had to get us up the twisting, narrow, potholed impassable road that seemed to go on forever before we finally crested the ridge overlooking the city. We parked and got out of the vehicle, it was twilight; the city lay in the valley a slight haze from the heat of the day hung suspended, giving it a dream-like effect. The truth of the matter was we were standing on the same ground with the same viewpoint that the Serbian gunners had during the four year siege!

Further up the road we inspected a sniper’s fox hole and gun emplacement, hidden amongst a small copse of trees that once shook to the boom and rattle of gunfire. The entire time keeping strictly on the narrow strip of tarmac --- the earth on either side still littered with between three hundred thousand and two million landmines! Still waiting to be cleared. Present estimation to do this, at least thirty years.



Five minutes later we were surveying the city lights from the balcony of a fashionable restaurant, dining on schnitzel a la champignon, a good local beer, followed by a peach flavoured tea, a local speciality.

  Well, so this is the other side of life we thought, but no—we were in for a few more surprises.



Down in the city we paid a visit to the Catholic cathedral of Jesus’ Heart, built in 1889.  This grand structure was mercifully spared major damage, not counting the shattered stained glass windows of course; but outside in the square, patrons were sipping cappuccinos and people watching in one of a dozen or more fashionable open air restaurants

A balloon vendor with a ten meter high multicoloured fantasy, surrounded by eager young faces, was plying his trade under the friendly though ever watchful gaze of the crew of a nearby armoured vehicle. Yes, the military, from a host of countries, is everywhere, their IFOR (Implementation Force) insignia changed to SFOR (Support Force) now that peace had returned.



The city’s pedestrian avenue Ferhadija wide and spacious was filled with young trendy fashion conscious slim hipped girls and the scent of Paris assailed our nostrils from every direction.

To all intents and purposes we were in the fashion quarter of a major European city. The contrasting juxtaposition was just too much to comprehend, but as we found out Sarajevo was always the haute couture capital of Eastern Europe and now after five years of isolation and deprivation the citizens were reclaiming, nay, asserting their city’s status.



Yet we had not seen it all. With what was left of the fading light we wandered over to one of the many public parks and here the true tragedy of this unwarranted aggression against a defenceless city lay. In a small fenced off area under some Plane trees, was what at first glance appeared to be a well tended garden in full bloom, but looking closer we found the wooden markers of eighteen graves! During the height of the siege the parks were turned into burial sites as the cemeteries were filled to capacity. But even here in this poignant setting the generation of tomorrow was playing ball, rollerblading and enjoying a bed time ice-cream treat.



And what of tomorrow? There is some concern that when the military mandate expires in June 1998 hostilities could resume, but for the most, people are intent on living every day to the full, confident that this is just the beginning of the life they once knew.


June 1997

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photo by: herman_munster