One European city that I have always wanted to visit is Sarajevo. Growing up, the earliest major world event for which I can recall having at least a rudimentary awareness was the Gulf War – perhaps, in part, because my cousin was sent overseas during his service with the U.S. Air Force. During this time, I wrote quite the compelling editorial for Ms. Jackson’s fourth-grade newspaper, scolding Saddam Hussein for dumping oil into the gulf and, in turn, hurting the wildlife. I went on to suggest that countries with more oil should just share gladly with those with less, and everyone could be happy. Sigh… if all the world’s problems could be solved through the eyes of a nine-year-old. Anyway…
Following the Gulf War, the other significant international conflict I readily recall was the Bosnian War (1992–1996), and the heartbreaking siege of Sarajevo. By the peak of the fighting I was in middle school which, I suppose, is about the age you start paying more attention to the news, be it for school assignments or just a more advanced curiosity about world affairs. In any case, this was the first I’d ever heard of Sarajevo. The grainy, black-and-white photographs of a devastated city that I saw in the local newspaper made it feel like it was a world away… and I guess it was. I can remember being both confused and sad with what was happening, feelings that have largely not changed as I reflect upon the events as an adult, though perhaps now with slightly more mindfulness than my preteen self.
I don’t think it’s because of the war that I was interested in visiting Sarajevo, but because of the city’s response to it. Curiously enough, one story that always stuck with me was that of the “cellist of Sarajevo,” Vedran Smailović, who courageously played his cello in ruined buildings during the siege, filling the war-torn streets with music, compassion, and hope. With even the minimal understanding I had, it just felt as if Sarajevo’s resolve and spirit were shatterproof, despite the fact that everything was literally crumbling around it. Twenty years later, I now realize that the blockade was, in fact, the longest siege on a city in modern history, lasting an incomprehensible 1,425 days. During the nearly four-year period, it’s estimated that an average of 329 shells per day rained down on Sarajevo, with the maximum – an overwhelming 3,777 shells – ravaging the city on 22 July 1993. When all was said and done, more than 11,000 people were killed (although the number could be as high as 18,000), another 50,000 suffered injuries, and over 60 percent of the city’s buildings had been destroyed.
Today, evidence from the war lingers throughout the city. Buildings are still riddled with bullet holes and craters from mortar shells. Along Sarajevo’s sidewalks, shallow depressions in the asphalt with splayed, rosette-like patterns mark sites where a mortar exploded, often claiming one or more civilian lives. In the war’s aftermath, these fragmented indentations were filled with a red resin to create ‘Sarajevo roses,’ a poignant memorial to the lives that were lost. Today, after years of re-paving and reconstruction, only a handful of Sarajevo roses remain. For many, though, the symbols are just another all too painful reminder of the city’s tragic past.
Our apartment in Sarajevo was a cozy little mother-in-law suite tucked off an uneven, cobblestone staircase that lead up one of the city’s many sloping hillsides. Each morning and evening we’d hear the hollow church bells of neighboring St. Anthony’s, echoing out to the city every half an hour. Similarly, we’d hear the resonating sound of the sunrise and sunset calls to prayer from the adjacent Emperor’s Mosque. In stark contrast, as we looked out on the terrace, with the calls to the faithful echoing around us, we saw apartment buildings peppered with bullet holes from the war. It was kind of a heart-rending sight to witness and, at the risk of sounding totally sappy, it felt like, above all of the sadness, that faith, love, and acceptance were able to rise from the rubble and piece the fractured community back together. While a good deal of political strife, economic despair, and persistent ethnic tensions still run deep in Sarajevo, I feel like the view out my apartment window was the ultimate sign of hope – hope that the city will continue to grow, and that the beauty we saw will transcend a heartbreaking past.
Walking around Sarajevo, the city had a really comfortable feel to it. It was vastly different from any other city we’d visited in Europe (perhaps because of everything described above), but boasts a rich history as well as enormous ethnic, religious, and cultural diversity. The historic center, the Bascarsija (old bazaar), dates back to the 15th century and, although unexpectedly compact, was full of character. In the main square stood the Sebilj, an Ottoman-style wooden fountain built in 1753. A pair of pigeons certainly seemed to enjoy the gentle stream of cool water, as they confidently staked their claim to some prime real estate atop the metal faucet. Wandering the narrow, cobblestone streets, tiny shops offered handmade crafts at every turn. On Coppersmith Street (Kazandziluk), copious displays of copper coffee sets glistened in the bright sunshine; nearby, leathersmiths carefully fashioned purses and handbags inside their modest storefronts. Above the quaint shops and cafes, pointed minarets erupted from the tops of humble stone mosques. Unlike other cities we visited, many of Sarajevo’s religious buildings were topped with glimmering, copper domes, (refitted during the recent reconstruction) rather than the well-weathered patina from decades of wear.
On the fringe of the old city center, alongside the shallow Miljacka River, stands the Vijećnica (City Hall) – a site that, by chance, was entwined in an event that forever changed the history of the world. On the morning of 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, who was visiting Sarajevo to monitor military operations, had attended a reception at the grand Town Hall. Regrettably, only minutes after leaving the soiree, a young Serbian nationalist ambushed the Archduke’s motorcade, fatally shooting the dignitary and his wife as they rode along the quay near the Latin Bridge. The assassination ultimately facilitated the start of WWI, when Austria declared war on Serbia only a month later. The Vijećnica, which also housed the National Library, remained an iconic landmark of Sarajevo until 1992, when Serbian troops razed the building during their siege on the city, which tragically resulted in the loss of more than two million rare books and historical documents. After a lengthy and costly reconstruction, City Hall was finally reopened in 2014.
While roaming the historic streets, we sampled an impressive variety of traditional Bosnian dishes – simple comfort foods with both Eastern and Western influences. While I shied away from the numerous meat dishes, I was able to find a lovely gentleman offering a strict vegetarian version of a Bosnian stew, which was just delicious. Stephan tried a host of local favorites, including klepe (a meat-filled dumpling), sarma (meat and rice rolled in cabbage leaves), japrak (minced meat wrapped in grape leaves), filovane paprika (peppers stuffed with minced meat), sitni cevap (a traditional meat stew), burek (meat-filled phyllo pastry), and cevapi (skinless sausage served in a pita). Frankly, I don’t think he got enough meat. Alongside our meals, we were also able to enjoy some traditional Bosnian coffee – a strong, dark brew that is much-adored and an unquestionable source of national pride.
Amidst hopping between all the small, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, we managed to make a trip to the Sarajevo Brewery (Sarajevska Pivara), an institution that holds a special spot in the city’s unique history. Started in 1864, the establishment became the only European brewery to be continually operational during both Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Furthermore, during the siege of Sarajevo, the brewery not only continued producing beer, but was one of the only places in the city where besieged residents could go for fresh water, as Serbian aggressors had cut off all resources (including water, electricity, and heating) to the city. Of course, journeying to the brewery during that time was a risky undertaking, and on 15 January 1993, eight people lost their lives during a shelling that targeted the facility. Rightfully so, Sarajevska Pivara has a lot of pride in their role in the country’s history, and is still churning out award-winning beer today.
During our visit, we also did a bit of exploring outside the city center. When we came into Bosnia & Herzegovina by bus, we were immediately captivated by the gorgeous countryside. Skirting crystalline rivers, clusters of modest homes with white exteriors and terra cotta roofs popped from the lush, mountainous landscape. Sarajevo’s scenery was no different, as the sprawling city’s dense, red-roofed suburbs crept up the steep green hillsides that enveloped the metropolis. To get a view of these striking surroundings, we headed uphill to two of the old fortifications – the Yellow Fortress and the White Fortress – which stood for centuries as part of the old city’s defensive walls. The panoramas were certainly spectacular; the mountains seemed to stretch endlessly into the horizon and, throughout the city, sharply-pointed minarets and tall steeples sprang up from the sea of red tiled roofs.
To Sarajevo’s southeast, atop the 5,338-foot (1,627-meter) peak of Trebević, sits the old bobsled course used in the host city’s 1984 Winter Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the once-festive site witnessed intense fighting during the siege of the early 1990s. The mountain’s significant elevation provided a strategic vantage point for Serbian forces and artillery, and the concrete tracks served as a key defensive site for besieging troops. Today, the abandoned track remains largely intact, albeit splashed with graffiti and peppered with scars from the fighting, and we were able to walk the length of the historic course. The pine forests surrounding the tracks were just beautiful and teeming with bird life, and the small walkways leading up the hillside provided even more lovely views of the city as well as the White Fortress. As the mountain has now been essentially cleared of landmines, it is again a popular spot for locals to enjoy a bit of nature’s tranquility just a short walk from the bustling city center.
Total distance: 6.0 miles
Elevation gain: 1,816 feet
Finally, one sight we felt that we couldn’t miss during our visit was the Sarajevo Tunnel. The Tunel Spasa (‘Tunnel of Hope’) was constructed over a four-month period with the goal of linking the city’s periphery with U.N.-controlled free Bosnian territory on the other side of the airport. Locals worked tirelessly in shifts around the clock from March to July of 1993, digging the tunnel by hand beneath the airport’s runway, often for the compensation of a pack of cigarettes, a highly-sought commodity during the siege. On July 1, 1993, the 800-meter long, 1-meter wide, and 1.6-meter high tunnel was completed and immediately put into use, transporting weapons, food, and humanitarian aid into Sarajevo. The tunnel’s entrance on the city side was through a private, family home immediately adjacent to the airport. Today, the home still remains and, though severely scarred from being battered by mortar shells, serves as a small museum to commemorate the important underpass. The tunnel also remains intact, and visitors can walk through a short, 20-meter (65-foot) section of the original passageway. I have to say, it was pretty incredible to see and, frankly, is a pretty amazing feat to have been accomplished as belligerents waged war just 5 meters (15 feet) above the heads of the underground workers.
I can’t close out this narrative without briefly mentioning the people we met in Sarajevo, some of the nicest and most sincere we’ve met along our journey. One afternoon, as we hopped off the city bus at a stop a few hundred meters from the Tunnel Museum, the driver leapt off the vehicle behind us, urgently waving to get our attention. He eagerly asked, “tunnel?” and we nodded affirmatively. He pointed to the left and gestured a couple of turns, clearly wanting to ensure we knew where we were headed. He then handed me a small slip of paper. On it, he’d written the times of the next several bus pickups, so we would know when to arrive back at the stop with as little wait as possible. It was completely unexpected, and we thought it was just the most thoughtful gesture.
The driver was just one of the many kind locals we met in Sarajevo, as it seemed that everyone we spoke with was eager to ask about our visit or to offer advice for sight-seeing, visibly (and deservedly) bursting with hometown pride. We feel really grateful, not only to have been able to explore the scenic hillsides and old-world alleys of beautiful Sarajevo, but to have met some incredible people along the way. Our last afternoon, as we rode the tram back from the edge of town, a local woman asked Stephan how we had liked her city. When he responded that we thought very fondly of it, the woman smiled proudly, fittingly declaring, “it’s got soul.” And that it certainly does. Thanks for sharing your unbreakable soul with us, Sarajevo. Until next time.