The bus ride to Sarajevo wound through a mountainous region of Bosnia & Herzegovina. The sheer rocky cliff sides starkly contrasted with the dense forests around it. The image reminded me of scenes from the movie Avatar. It was breathtaking and almost fictional. Our bus carefully navigated the endless switchbacks before eventually moseying down into the valley that held Sarajevo.
Sarajevo had truly come a long way in the last 30 years since the Bosnian War for Independence from Yugoslavia. It appeared that the tension between Serbs, Bozniaks, and Croats were long gone, or at least less apparent. The city contained its own bubble of tolerance. Within just a few small blocks, a Jewish synagogue, Orthodox Cathedral, Muslim Mosque, and Catholic Cathedral all reside near one another. Mosques by far appeared to outnumber the other religions, but the walled courtyards exuded an inviting, peaceful place for friends to gather or the weary to seek refuge.
Young women in their twenties caroused around the tourist center with short booty shorts as women strolled nearby in full black burkas from head to toe, with only dark eyes peering out from below. Muslim children fed pigeons beside Christian children, while fathers from both cultures laughed and took pictures as their families enjoyed an outing. The western rhetoric about Islam can sometimes be polarizing and derisive. Sarajevo was surreal and instilled hope for greater understanding across cultures.
Bascarsija was the old town in Sarajevo where we spent much of our time. Wooden shops stood full of Turkish lanterns, copper Bosnian tea-sets, eastern-patterned pillows, and decorative scarves as a few examples. The “souvenirs” in Sarajevo were unique and different than anything we had run across until that point. Roaming the columns and rows of the market, smells of local fare wafted our way and we could not resist their draw. They were so irresistible that Hannah and I actually shipped a few small things back home, as they were unlike anything we had seen back home or on the trip up to that point.
Cevapcici, a tubular kebab of minced meat, was served beside onions and fluffy pita bread on a small metallic disk. Further along, burek, a meat, spinach, cheese, or potato stuffed phyllo pastry enticed visitors by the trayful. Takeaway orders were weighed by the kilogram, while servers inquired as to what kind and brought diners arbitrary amounts (or so it seemed for us). The local way appeared to be eaten with a thin white yogurt on top. Aside from these delectable street foods, I did have a schawarma wrap one evening, as I hadn’t eaten much at an earlier meal. I woke up the following morning sick with food poisoning for the first several hours, but I was able to kick it and still enjoy the remainder of the afternoon at a slow pace.
We joined a free walking tour one afternoon that took us through the history of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The Bosnian War for independence lasted 4 years from 1991 to 1995. Much of the time, Sarajevo was under siege from the surrounding hilltops that enclose the city. Our guide, aged 7-11 during the war, told us of his personal perspective and memories. While his family lived in an 8th floor apartment, the majority of the complex moved into a communal room in the basement for safety for several years. This was a common way of life during the war, many families were forced into similar situations for the pursuit of safety. Throughout the Bosnian War, actual gunfire was rare in this city, aside from a strip called Sniper’s Alley. Sarajevo, instead, was under siege from the mountains outside the city. Serbian forces utilized artillery and mortars to inflict both terror and destruction on the people and buildings of the city.
An average of 300 explosions took place each day in Sarajevo during the 44 month siege. Further along the route, our guide pointed out older buildings pockmarked across their faces. The large marks were holes from artillery shells and mortars. Some buildings had been fully repaired, but many did not have the funds. Others had ownership disputes after so many people fled the ciy and country during the war. Throughout Sarajevo, there were permanent scars of red resin splashed “roses” on the concrete walkways where major artillery shells landed during the war.
At times throughout the trip, I went on a jog in the evenings to experience the city in a different way. A memorable evening run in Sarajevo took me past Mazarje Stadion. My feet inextricably grounded to a very slow walk. Hundreds upon hundreds of white stone graves stared back at me. It was obvious they were all from the same time period. The stadium was built for the 1984 Olympic games in Sarajevo. It was the site of joyous cheering, pride, and drawing together the international community for sport. More than a decade later, its purpose stood as a direct antithesis, a converted cemetery. It now serves as a reminder of tragedy and the wake of destruction left behind by the Bosnian war in the 1990s.
The city contained many reminders, museums, and information regarding the war, atrocities, and genocide that took place there. While we only had so much time to take all of it in, Sarajevo’s beleaguered history left us with a deep appreciation of safety and reminder of the fragility of human life.
On a final note, our walking tour guide told of one experience that I will never forget. During the war, he and his friends had collected the old wrappers of long ago eaten chocolate bars. They would pull them out of storage to just smell them and sometimes trade them, as it as was the closest thing they had to a treat. It left a lasting impression of how, despite adversity, children will still look for the good in a situation.