Try to define Sarajevo...

Sarajevo Travel Blog

 › entry 8 of 9 › view all entries
You can't.  Try to define the world, in particular the entirety of the twentieth century.  Significantly easier.  it is Sarajevo.  This is the place that defined and shaped human existence during the last hundred years.  There are many places in the world that claim to be the meeting point of east and west, we've been traveling through several of them, Sarajevo is finally that place.  This truly multi-cultural city has everything and has seen everything.  All the hurt and the bad things that happened in the twentieth centruy happened right here in Bosnia and most of it in Sarajevo.  From the collapse of the world's empires, great wars, the rise of nationalism, communism, and their collapse.  The brutality of urban warfare, indiscriminate shelling of civilians.  The rise of smaller ethnically defined countries rather than global powerhouses.  And perhaps finally, in places, the cultural creep of the west and the economic amalgamation of the coming century as Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) staggers towards Europe.

But its not all doom and gloom.  Sarajevo has also seen some of the best that this world has to offer.  Its hard to forget, this is an Olympic city (Torvill and Dean, 1984), one of the great achievements of man in the last hundred years.  Every year, this city plays host to Hollywood and the entire film industry in one of the biggest film festivals around.  This city is multi-cultural and it works, orthodox, catholics and muslims live and work side by side.  The ethnic tension that pervades much of the Balkans doesn't exist here.  The resilience of this city amazes me. 

Most notably in the four year seige of the city between 1992 and 1995.  Living for almost four years surrounded and constantly pounded by shells from the surrounding Serb nationalists (One of the most important things to remember about Sarajevo is that this was not an ethnic war, like the rest of Bosnia, Mostar and Srebrenica being the obvious and tragic examples.  This was Sarajevans, Serbs included, against Serb nationalists).  The shelling was indiscrimate, the maternity ward was hit, the old people's home is yet to be rebuilt.  On one day, the Serb nationalists stopped shelling, aimed their guns at the city market, and waited until people went there.

In total 11,000 people died, over a thousand of them children.  Of the two lifelines this city survived with, one was a natural spring located underneath the city brewery, to get to which most of the population had to pass through what was known as Sniper alley, the reasons I expect you can work out.  The other being an 800m long tunnel, 1m wide, 1m60 tall that allowed weapons, water, fuel, food, goats and electricity in, along with people.  It was located underneath the city airport, the UN controlled zone.  The UN was there for the Sarajevan's protection, but in an effort to be neutral, all it did to help was not reveal the whereabouts of the tunnel to the Serbs and provide the city with out of date american surplus biscuits and offal, in what was meant to be food aid.  The international community just stood by and watched.  How is an interesting question I haven't quite found the answer too.  Its all very harrowing, the memorial to the children who died lies next to what is known as a Sarajevo Rose, the crater from a shell, filled in with red concrete in the middle of the dull grey pavement.

And yet, teachers still taught, nightlife continued, beauty pageants were held, cinema was watched, the people survived, the spirit survived and Sarajevo is special because of that.  I just about remember the war in Bosnia, being between five and nine at the time.  These past few days have been an important lesson.

Since the other three guys left, Shell, Charli and I have travelled from Split in Croatia to BiH, attempting to leave by the coast road on a bank holiday not exactly being the sanest thing to attempt.  On the way, we stopped off in Mostar, a beautiful city, with perhaps one of the most iconic bridges in the world, destroyed by shells from Bosnian Serbs in 1993 (as a goose-bump inducing twenty second home video clip shows), and rebuilt in 2004.  The shells of buildings bombed out line the streets, bullet marks still pepper many of the buildings, but life has returned, locals still jump the 21m off the bridge for money from tourists, the arts and crafts in the old parts of the town have returned and make a lively trade.  We proceeded to Sarajevo later that evening, spending only four hours in Mostar, it was just enough, but only just.  Sarajevo has been a bit drizzly but is such a nice city.  There are beautiful Mosques and Cathedrals, the old Turkish quarter with its street market is such a cool place and we spent our first morning, and some of our second doing some shopping.  And after all the really bad tourist tat in Croatia (there is really not much worth buying in that country) its been quite fun to do some souvenir shopping.  Their copperwork is particularly fine and their turkish delight rather good too.

In the afternoons we've been on a tour, driving through the city and learning about its history before heading off to the tunnel museum on the outskirts, our tour-guide was very good there.  We also payed a visit to the Olympic ice rink (rebuilt) although the alleged museum looked closed in a fairly terminal way.  And we've checked out the other significant event in this city's history, the spot (and accompanying museum!) where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914, triggering World War I and probably, as a consequence, most of the wars since.

It also has a culinary identity, which I believe is really the key to any nation.  Fine cakes, good beer and an obsession with coffee.  Their local meal of Cevapi (mini beef sausages fried in pita with fresh onions and tomatoes) is excellent and it seemed that at 3pm today, Friday, everyone was out enjoying one.  The local meat and pastry cumberland sausage shaped snack Burek is also delicious.

All in all I've loved BiH, perhaps I'll return, and its not often, with all that there is to see in the world, that I say that.
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Sarajevo
photo by: herman_munster