The Way It Used To Be - Chapter Eighteen: Sarajevo


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Europe » Bosnia & Herzegovina » East » Sarajevo
August 6th 2005
Published: May 28th 2008
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Europe?Europe?Europe?

It maight even be Istanbul...
From my compartment window, the train slowed to a crawl and I watched towering apartment building give way to single homes tucked into hillsides. They looked down at a valley. Minarets shot up like spikes from domed mosques and the whaling commenced, as that early hour marked the first call to Muslim prayer. Women dawned in burquas and stern faces held shopping bags by the platform. For a brief moment, my common sense and education of all that I knew of Europe had eluded me. Had I arrived in Sarajevo or Istanbul?

My initial walk through Sarajevo’s Stari Grad, or Old Town, did little to dissuade me from the Istanbul theory. People here looked like Turks; dark, stubble beards, and jet black hair. I lost count of the minarets throughout the center and those that rise up in the residential hills. People drink Turkish coffee or enjoy Turkish tea in Turkish hourglass glasses. Turkish music rings out from portable stereos. Aggressive and unremitting vendors hang carpets in shop windows and dash after passersby to make a first sale of the morning. (Even Hanna, the woman of the house where I am staying, has tried to sell me embroidery.) Heaps of
Uphill To HomeUphill To HomeUphill To Home

It is simple to stay with families. they open their doors to houseguests...
trash are swept together and piled up in the middle of the street, soon to be collected. They say that odor is the sense that most evokes memory. This odor was awful, but one that transported me back to a morning in Antalya. Dozens of mangy stray cats prowl in dumpsters and cry out pathetically. The most prominent display on the bookshelf in my private room is the Koran. It has taken a good long while to convince myself that I did not actually make it well into Turkey.

Sarajevo. Its name calls to mind an assassination that sparked World War I. The city hosted and impressed the globe during 1984 Winter Olympics. For centuries, Jews, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Catholics have lived here in relative peace. Its nickname is the European Jerusalem.
But it is the siege by Serbian forces from 1992-1995 that most defines this amazing city. Ten years on, Sarajevo has undergone an incomparable Renaissance. What this city has created from the ashes, mortar craters, sacrifice, rubble, and bitter loss of life, is nothing short of miraculous. There is a spirit in Sarajevo unmatched anywhere else. The city bustles. It hums. It churns. Suited gentleman dart
Cemeteries AboundCemeteries AboundCemeteries Abound

The dates on the gravestones are ominous...
across streets with an agenda they keep to themselves, as to quietly say, “We haven’t caught up yet. But just wait.” From one o’clock to five, Sarajevo falls eerily noiseless, as only naïve tourists roam the streets in search of sites or bargains in the shops overflowing with metal trinkets and other junk. As the grueling midday Balkan heat subsides at dusk, throngs of people of all ages take to the streets. Cafés overflow. Almost no one walks without an ice cream cone in their hand and a napkin in the other. It is a vibrant scene of people who know all too well that there is lost time to make up for. And you better not get in the way.

Only by coming to Sarajevo do the four years of Serbian torture and oppression really hit home. With the exception of the far western end of town, by the airport, Sarajevo is completely surrounded by steep and forested hills. The Serbs controlled all positions above Sarajevo with tanks, marksmen, and grenade launchers. Only when you look up, and you visualize those armed units, you actually see it for yourself, do you realize that everyone in Sarajevo who lived
Uncommon OccurrenceUncommon OccurrenceUncommon Occurrence

Not only was I allowed in the mosque, photos were OK, too...
through the siege had no chance of escape. There was nowhere to go. They were exposed and attractive targets. It wasn’t a fair fight: Sarajevo reminds you of that game at the amusement park where you shoot the ducks that waddle by in a row. They fall effortlessly. For the Serbian army, especially on Sniper Alley, it was that easy.
For as much as Sarajevo has transformed itself, the scars are clear as day. Bullet holes riddle every side of apartment and office buildings. Every side! This means no one had a clue form which direction they were going to be hit, nor when, nor how. Sidewalks still display deep craters where mortar fire landed. If you did not know otherwise, you’d think the city had been negligent in filling in potholes. Only the exterior of factories remains intact in some areas of Sarajevo. Entire portions of the structures, beams and all, lie in rubble.
In addition to being shot at, Sarajevans went without food, gas, electricity, and basic communications during the siege. You have heard it all before and have seen it on TV. But it all takes on a whole new scale when actually retrace the steps of
A Long Time AgoA Long Time AgoA Long Time Ago

So much has changed from the 1984 Winter Olympics...
history and recreate it in your mind. A mortar shell destroyed Markale Market, two blocks from my accommodation. The strategic objective? Women buying provisions. The market is alive and well today and tourists pause when they realize that among the taller buildings directly in the vicinity offered no shelter for the doomed victims. I decided to buy my vegetables today at Markale and noticed the plaque in the far right corner, which commemorates the massacre.

A visit to Sarajevo generates the same contempt for Serbs as a visit to Auschwitz does towards the Germans. The only difference is that two generations of Germans have had to live with their sobering history. The current generation did not participate. The same cannot be said for Bosnia. Wounds are still wide open here. Even though this is a part of the world that has been senselessly killing each other for over one thousand years, it is impossible to dismiss the sins that were inflicted. Sarajevo may be back on its feet. Sarajevo is the epitome of tolerance and getting along with each other. It has got to be the most diverse city in Europe, and it is a predominantly Muslim city. It
Sniper AlleySniper AlleySniper Alley

To envision what happened here from the hilltops...
is therefore prudent to visit Serbia, I suppose, as I have gone so many times and immersed myself in Germany. However, I assure you forgiveness is not on anyone’s lips in Sarajevo with respect to Serbia.

I unenthusiastically took a guided tour of town, if only so it could point out the highlights and I could make note of where I wanted to go back and nose around further. It served its purpose in spite of, “Come folks, time to go, we’ll be late.” Like little lemmings, we file in and out of mini vans. And in spite of a narcissistic tour guide whose personal recollections of the siege did not go unnoticed, I still detest tour groups. I really do.
It astonishes me how blind many other tourists are to the recent history in which they are allegedly engrossing themselves. Only ten years gone, and they listen with the same vigor and interest as if they were at a lecture retelling the final maneuvers at the Battle of Waterloo. Mostly Europeans, their countries stood by and did nothing. Many Q&A sessions surfaced along the tour. But I refrained from asking the pointed and uncomfortable questions out in the
A Shell of What Once WasA Shell of What Once WasA Shell of What Once Was

Mortar shells have pocked buildings all over Sarajevo...
open; that would have made me a pariah for the entire tour. Here are a few for starters: If not for the U.S. led N.A.T.O. bombardment of Serbian positions above Sarajevo in 1995, would Bosnia even exist today? Sarajevo cheered them in spite of the collateral loss of life it wrought. Would all the Muslims in Sarajevo have been exterminated like elsewhere in the country, if not for the United States? Note the emphasis on “U.S. led”. These tourists don’t get it. Or they just don’t care. I can see it in their faces that say, “Are we done yet? Gee, it is really hot here. Did you see a soda machine by that bunker?” There is no correlation, no connection, no sense of concerted European responsibility, and no feeling that the U.N.’s operations should be limited to strictly humanitarian concerns.
If there is one thing Bosnians and I agree upon it is the utter uselessness of the United Nations as a military or peacekeeping organization. (I am trying not to laugh as I write this, but it would be disrespectful to those who lost their lives when the U.N. should have acted instead of looking the other way) If
Here and ThereHere and ThereHere and There

Bullet holes...
ever caught in U.N. “safe” zone, you know you’re doomed. For all the Bosnians with whom I have spoken, not one has answered in the negative to, “Do you think it is true that there are those in Serbia that only understand the point of a gun?” Tragically, the U.N. never put this into practice in Bosnia. They took up arms, but were unwilling to use them. I have always been told that if you pick up a firearm, you better be prepared to use it. And the only purpose of a firearm has to end the life of another human being. The U.N. failed here. Just like everywhere else they are called upon to make two sides determined to kill each other stop fighting. Because they are not willing to kill others in order to maintain the peace, as bitterly ironic as that sounds.
Leave the real military policing to the Americans and the British. If you don’t believe me, ask a Bosnian.

It has been more of a challenge to gather first-hand accounts about the siege here. Nevertheless, people’s reactions to me and my questions are logical. When they hear that I am writing up a piece,
GravesiteGravesiteGravesite

The dead piled up in such high numbers, cemeteries were created outside the city...
albeit travel as the main theme, they immediately think, journalist. And during the siege, journalists did very little to improve Sarajevo’s plight as far as locals were concerned. In fact one Pultizer-prize winning photographer shot images of a woman hit by a marksman, approached her, and snapped more photos of her as she died in that very same spot. He never attended to her, moved her, or called for help. That is what many people think of journalists here. My questions have often been met with a rolling of the eyes or the most rudimentary answers of yes or no. People here are tired of reporters, TV cameras, and interviews. Besides, who can blame them? After ten years, most here want to get on with their lives. Who would want to sit down with someone who will never truly understand, take away a slice of their time, and be on their way without making a positive impact on the city? In the end, who likes to talk about war anyway?

In the upper neighborhoods hides the “other” Sarajevo. It is the part of town into which tourists do not venture. They are more comfortable in the shaded cover of
Markale MarketMarkale MarketMarkale Market

No one has forgotten what happened here...
the cafés, restaurants, and souvenir shops of the Turkish quarter. Almost exclusively Muslim, this is where most Sarajevans go about their daily lives, undisturbed from the fast pace of the city below. Neighborhood mosques and their towering minarets are the foundations of the community, which come in small, large, and in different colors. Some are better taken care of and others are in disrepair. But there is one common theme to all of them, and that is they have graveyards alongside the walkway that leads to the front entrance. Though many need attention and a little maintenance, it is the ominous and depressing engravings on the obelisk-like gravestones that are impossible to ignore. The dates of birth differ anywhere from 1910 all the way to the mid 1980’s. But it is the year of death on these stones that almost never vary: 1992. 1994. 1995. Of the rough count of the six mosques I visited, 80% of the deaths took place in those years alone. It was nearly an ironic joy to see someone’s grave dated 1997, in spite of having lived only fifty years. At least he made it past the mid 1990’s, right?

I continued to happily
InThe Hilly NeighborhoodsInThe Hilly NeighborhoodsInThe Hilly Neighborhoods

Daily life is peaceful...
walk through a mind-boggling maze of vertical and curvy streets unveiled that make up the Bjelave district of Sarajevo. Tiny corner shops serve the immediate needs of residents; groceries, supplies, and hardware can all be bought here, saving the shoppers, mostly women, from the sharp descent to the larger markets below only to have to trudge straight back up loaded with bags of goods. Children play Cowboys and Indians, oblivious to my temporary intrusion. Elderly folks lounge on a porch with cold drinks. Men in stained T-shirts take a break from repaving part of the road to enjoy a game of backgammon in the shade. Gardens are evidence of how resourceful people are up here. Small plots of land render vegetables, flowers, and fruit trees climb the gutters and tiles roofs of the non-detached houses. The few homes that have garages are stockpiled with orderly stacks of chopped timber, most likely fuel for the upcoming winter. Otherwise, axed logs rest against the sides of homes, neat and in their proper place. Men cut their grass with weedwackers rather than lawnmowers since their plots are so miniscule.
But make no mistake. Little wealth has scaled up to these heights. Every fourth or fifth home is dilapidated or in some sort of disrepair. Homes are made of bricks simply slapped together haphazardly with mortar to build walls, balconies, and garages. Some are of exposed cinder blocks, the outsides of which remain a dull and chalky gray. Few residences have insulation on the walls. Ripped balconies are on the verge of collapse in many places. Schoolyards are in terrible condition and soccer fields are but open spaces of sharp and torn rubble. Many windows to classrooms are smashed, and graffiti stains the outside walls, very little of which has been untouched by the uninvited spray paint. Dozens of cold, natural spring fountains emerge all over Sarajevo, and in Bjelave in particular. Fed into the city from the surrounding mountains, you are never that far from one. They magically appear around a dark corner just when it is time to combat your thirst. The water gushes out. Sometimes it trickles. But it is fresh, cold, and absolutely perfect. Besides hydrating tourists, many women line up at these fountains to wash dishes and clothes. Some come from their homes, some from their stores.
I stopped to chat with an old man painting the side of his house pink in addition to their adjacent video rental shop. Trying to congratulate and encourage him, his portly and mustached wife peeked over the top balcony to shoo me away. Apparently, I was not welcome, or was keeping him from the task she assigned him. So, knowing that I royally pissed her off, I smiled at her, waved, and graciously spoke to her in some language of my choosing. I think it was French. This enraged her more and she began to yell at me. At that point, I smiled at her, thanked her, patted her husband on the shoulder, and went on my merry way. Her husband waved goodbye.


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7th July 2008

A vivid picture of this remarkable city. I'm going to read a lot more of your writing now that I've come across this.
8th July 2008

Kind Comments From You
Wonderful for you to contact me. I LOVED hearing these words. Pls. keep reading. I will be posting consistently for the next 7 weeks. Be well. be safe. Keep in touch. A friend.

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