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Published: August 31st 2012
I squeezed into the last spot available, tucked up on the former stage. Tables and chairs, all fully occupied, crowded every available open space of the old cinema, Kino Bosna; people even lounged with drinks in the stadium seating. A musical trio – a guy with an accordion, another with something like a ukulele, and a singer – wove in out of the crowd performing merry songs that I could not understand, but for which the audience, young and old, clearly knew every word. The group of twenty-something guys sitting next to me offered rounds of rakija and asked me where I was from between bouts of laughing and belting out the latest song and crying over a friend’s imminent departure to Italy.One guy leaned towards me, waving his arm to indicate the cheerful chaos, and said: “Sarajevo is the best city! No matter where you go, you always come back!”
When I was planning my Balkans adventure, I knew that I was going to spend a bit longer in Sarajevo than most other points on my itinerary, simply because there would be such so much to see and do (from a historian’s perspective). However, probably in less than a
day after arriving from Belgrade, I knew I was going to almost double my planned stayed – and soon I was scheming ways to get myself back to the city for an even more extended period. The Bosnian guy at Kino Bosna, clearly proud of his hometown, I think was onto something about Sarajevo: it sucks you in and doesn’t want to let you go.
In the grand scheme of things, Sarajevo is not a big city. The total population is less than 500,000 (though that is still more than that of Iceland – as a whole!), and the historical core of the city, where most tourists will spend their time, could be crossed in about 15-20 minutes on foot (assuming one is not stopping to see the sights or drink a coffee). But it packs a wallop well beyond its physical size or smallish population, particularly if you have any interest in history. This is, of course, the city where Ottoman and Habsburg empires* vied for control of the Balkans; where Gavrilo Princip shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting off the chain of events that led to World War I; where German and Partisan forces fought during World
War II; where the 1984 winter Olympics were held; and where the horrendous 1992-1995 siege unfolded. All that history still echoes in Sarajevo; yet Sarajevans also seem to take great pride in the city’s present and future, as evident by my new Bosnian friend’s proclamation
While in Sarajevo, I stayed in a guesthouse essentially right next door to Markale Market. Today the market is just that, a place where vendors hawk piles of beautiful looking fruits – luscious figs and plums were in season! – and colorful vegetables. But it was also the site of not one, but two, terrible massacres during the Bosnian War. The last one, in August 1995, served as the “final straw” that finally caused NATO to step in to end the conflict. It was a chilling moment to walk through the War Museum and see a photo of a man torn apart by shelling draped over the market’s street side railing, a spot I walked by every day during my stay in Sarajevo.
There were other such moments, like when I climbed up to the Jewish cemetery with my friend Sara (a one time resident of the city and avid Bosnia-phile).
Set high in the hills that rise sharply above Sarajevo, the cemetery offers a lovely, panoramic view. But then you remember: oh, this was one of the spots from which snipers fired upon the city. Some of Sara’s friends actually lived in the direct line of fire from this position. They spent several years of their childhood being shot at by unseen fighters hiding behind Jewish gravestones…
But what I came to find fascinating was that despite the dark tragedy of the war Bosnians in general, and Sarajevans in particular, are some of the most remarkably warm and upbeat people I’ve encountered. They haven’t forgotten the traumas of the siege – actually, they often make darkly humorous jokes about the time! – but they have not let it dampen their enthusiasm for their beloved city and its rebirth.
Two of the most enthusiastic Sarajevans I met were Adnan and Samir, the brothers who ran the guesthouse near Markale. With both me and pretty much every guest I saw come and go, they went out of their way to show off the city and its surroundings. Going above and beyond normal “service”, one day Adnan drove a few of
us to Igman and Bjelašnica mountains, where the Olympic skiing competitions took place. It was an excursion that underlined what an unusual travel destination Bosnia is once you get away from the old center of Sarajevo.
On the way to Igman we passed in and out of the “entity” of the Republika Srpska (Serbian Republic), one of the strangest political demarcations in the Balkans. And as we climbed into the mountains – now back in Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (not to be confused with the whole country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of course) territory – we saw signs warning of minefields. I guess I won’t be hiking these mountains just yet… We also stopped at the bombed out carcass of an Olympic era hotel, another chilling monument to the destruction of the war – one with gorgeous mountain views. Further up, we came to the isolated wooden mosque built by Muslim soldiers hiding in the forest during the conflict; you almost stumble into it before you see it, lost as it is among the trees. Several men were praying within its rough timber walls. The Olympic ski slopes were ghostly in their summer barrenness. It was all a
fascinating mix of stunning beauty and stunning tragedy.
Another day, Samir volunteered to drive me out to the Tunnel Museum, out near the airport, saying it was on his way to work and he wanted to know exactly where it was anyway. Set in a quiet neighborhood within a stone’s throw of the airport runway, the museum highlights one of the most remarkable actions of the war. Since the Bosnian Serbs had managed to all but cut off Sarajevo from the areas of from “free” territory controlled by the Bosnian army, a 800 meter long tunnel was dug under the airport (which at the time was controlled by UN forces), providing a vital source of supplies into the besieged city. Today, only a 20-meter stretch of the tunnel is open to visitors, but it was enough to get the picture – especially when you are 6’2” like me! I can only imagine what it must have been like to shuttle through such a long, dank, dark passage, hunched over the entire way. But the tunnel, which operated from 1993 to the end of the war, saved countless lives.
It was Samir, too, who recommended that I try out
Kino Bosna.That evening, far from my Ottoman-Habsburg “research” and far from my explorations of the ‘90s war, proved one of the highlights of my stay in Sarajevo. Being immersed in that crowd of joyful Bosnians encapsulated the spirit of this country that has stolen my heart.
* See my blog entry on Ottoman Sarajevo: http://boundarystones.blogspot.com/2012/08/ottoman-ghosts-2-sarajevo.html
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