Sarajevo

By Rob Packer

I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere like Sarajevo. No other country that I’ve visited has seen war as recently as Bosnia, no other city a siege. I was ten when Bosnia declared its independence and was immediately consumed by war. It’s the first conflict that I remember well and I think that the memories that I do have will always be connected with the names of the country, the capital and several other cities in the country—a sign to Travnik or a bus to Srebrenica bring back memories of news footage of the war. These won’t go away; but now that I’ve been there, they’ll be mixed with my own memories of the country.

Unlike Mostar, Sarajevo feels much more alive: the city is much bigger and the far-wider rebuilding effort makes you feel that it’s looking towards a normalized future, rather than just towards the past. Having said that, however, history bears its mark on the city: if you simplify things, Sarajevo’s tramline runs from east to west, passing from the Ottoman-era market of Baščaršija through Austro-Hungarian Ferhadija to the Yugoslav city built for the 1984 Olympics, which later became known as Sniper Alley during the Bosnian War where snipers from the Serbian army were able to shoot Sarajevans as they crossed the road.

The Sebilj, a fountain at the centre of Baščaršija, Sarajevo's Turkish quarter.

Ferhadija, the main drag of Sarajevo's Austro-Hungarian centre.

Zmaja od Bosne, a.k.a. Sniper Alley during the war. The yellow building on the left is the Holiday Inn, which was built for the 1984 Winter Olympics.

As I walked through the Sarajevo Under Siege exhibition at the city’s History Museum, I was reminded of the hardship that people had to go through 15 years ago—a lot of which I’m also ashamed to say passed me by at the time. The exhibition attempts to give a neutral view of the siege with objects and newspaper cuttings, photos, official documents and objects, most of which are in Bosnian, Serbian or Croatian, rather than trying to guide the visitor through the three years of siege: the documents are only given a short explanation in English, which makes it hard if you don’t speak a local language. In spite of this, some things are very powerful, such as a ground plan of a “typical Sarajevo flat”, where windows destroyed in shelling are replaced by material from UNHCR bags and where a diagonal line through the flat has been destroyed by artillery fire.

And later that day, I went out to Ilidža to see the Tunnel Museum, part of the war that I had no idea about before visiting Sarajevo: with the city completely surrounded by Serb forces, the only part of the city connected to friendly forces was the airport runway, which was controlled by the UN and provided Sarajevo’s lifeline during the war. However, as part of an agreement early on in the war, people were prevented from crossing the runway and could neither leave nor enter the city, until the population built an 800m tunnel under the runway, which was then used to transport people and goods into and out of the city. The Kolar family, whose house is the exit point of the tunnel, run a small museum about the tunnel with video footage of the tunnel in use during the war: a frightening experience as the tunnel was 1.60m high, took around 45 minutes end to end and always seemed to have a few centimetres of water in, while at head height ran a 110V power cable.

The Tunnel.

A warning within the tunnel by the power cable.

The city’s history makes it unique and feel like an amalgam of its parts as you pass through what could be Bursa, Bratislava then Bucharest, but despite the horrors the city’s centre feels relatively normal: the typical shops you find in any European city worth its salt, a backstreet restaurant where a Bosnian TV chefs cook up whatever he or you feel like that day, Turkish-style kafanas serving excellent coffee with a piece of lokum (Turkish delight) on the side, ćevabdžinice or buregdžinice serving ćevapčići (grilled beef fingers) or burek (meat-filled pastries), and plenty of places serving Viennese-style cakes or halva.

I liked Sarajevo a lot and it seems to be getting over its history by getting on with life: I’m no expert, but this seems like the right way of going about things. But history presents itself constantly: for example, my bus from Sarajevo to Montenegro left from the bus terminal in East Sarajevo and when I asked for directions, there was something in the tone of the voice that it being in East Sarajevo made it difficult or dangerous, or alternatively that it’s just in a depressing part of town—which is true.

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