We continued through Bosnia from Mostar to Sarajevo, where we’d be spending 3 full days with 2 Remotes who were flying in before heading north to visit my old co-worker’s family.
Arriving at 8pm in the pitch dark, we drove down into the saucer-like setting of Sarajevo. [A 4:30 sunset is one of the many things I seem to have missed while working in offices for the majority of my adult life. Has it always gotten this dark this early during the winter?] Our Air BnB was just off of downtown, with a backyard, parking spot, and clothes dryer. We had hit the jackpot. I hadn’t seen a dryer in a home since the States in July and I was definitely the first to use it.
Sarajevo is surrounded by mountains and sits at the bottom of a bowl-like valley. We learned later that this was key for the drawn-out 4-year siege on the capital as the Serbs were able to surround it, in its entirety, and launch mortars (among other things) into the bowl… like shooting fish in a barrel.
Bosnia was the third country to pull out of Yugoslavia (following Slovenia and Croatia), but Serbia wanted to combine the 2 regions as a new Bosnian Serb state of Republic Srpska (RS). In March, 1992, Bosnia had signed documents to officially become independent. 1 month later, during Ramadan, military personnel started appearing on the mountains overlooking the capital and performing ‘military tests’- or that’s what the civilians were told- and not to worry. On April 5, 1992, from what had been viewed as protective military forces, the first gun fire rained down on the city and lasted until Feb 29, 1996. That means the attack lasted 1,425 days; the longest siege of a capital city in history.
On our first day, which was cold and rainy, we visited Gallery 11/07/95, a photography exhibit on the Srebrenica genocide. I challenge anyone to walk through that gallery and not openly weep. A Dutch-run UN safe zone camp in Srebrenica was essentially overrun by the Serb Army and turned into a massacre. Civilian Muslim men and boys, ages 12-77, who were being singled out, had escaped the oncoming forces by running into the hills. They were then promised peace by the army, coaxed down to the roads, and over 8,000 were slaughtered. Mass graves were not discovered for years, some as recently as last year. As if that wasn’t enough trauma, we visited the Museum of Crimes Against Humanity and Genocide 1992-1995, just a half a block away. According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), 90% of the war crimes were committed by Serbian and Montenegrin forces. The ICTY had ruled that the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims was genocide. Bosnia’s population is/was Muslim (Bosniak), Catholic (Croat), Orthodox (Serb), and a very small amount Jewish. But many stood side by side and fought back against the RS Army, no matter their religion. Families and neighbors, including many Serbs who lived in Bosnia, stood together to fight. Over 300,000 people remained in this war-torn city, including over 65,000 children.
Why is genocide important to research and understand? The only way for genocide to end is with education and acknowledgement. We see genocide continuing around the world to this day. Serbia, like Turkey with the Armenians, won’t acknowledge a genocide occurred. A lack of acknowledgment encourages repetition. Our minds are like sieves, we have to educate and re-educate, as history continues to repeat itself.
Our tour guide the following day had been a policeman during the war and gave us a first-hand account of what it was like to live in the city during that time. He took us on a drive around the perimeter, to the 1984 Winter Olympic site, to numerous grave sites (there are countless), and to the life-saving tunnel that had been created to bring in rations for the occupants living in the city. The ‘Tunnel that Saved Sarajevo‘ (over a half mile long and dug by hand) had an exit in one man’s home, strategically located on the other side of the airport in Bosnian territory. We walked through 25 meters of a tunnel which had been created as a prototype, and was supposedly identical to the tallest and widest portions of the tunnel. Being not quite 5’2″ and 100lbs, I was surprised at how tight the area was (I had to hunch over). Bosnians aren’t known for being small and our guide (who went through the tunnel, at one point, 7 times in a day) was at least a foot taller than me and twice as wide. He would also have to pass people going in the other direction, sometimes with wheelbarrows and live sheep. It could take over 2 hours to walk end to end.
Cigarettes, like in jail, were the main form of currency in the city. Our guide was paid 1 pack of cigarettes a day. The price of goods (including food) was 4-10 times higher than before the siege. Schools continued underground to keep some normalcy and consistency in place. We drove down the wide main road in the business center (where the US Embassy, the 3rd largest embassy in all of Europe, is located) infamously known as Sniper Alley. Anyone spotted on this street: men, women and children, were killed during the war. Building after building around the city is scarred with shrapnel. Bombs left marks on sidewalks and streets in the shape of stick flower drawings (each known as a ‘rose’, to put a happy spin on it for the children) that have yet to be filled in 20 years later.
It was a lot to take in and it wasn’t easy to understand our tour guide with his heavy Slavic accent, but I vowed to look up details afterwards.
Not all of Sarajevo was a downer, though. The city may be scratched here and there by shrapnel and mortars, but the soul of the people shines through with every interaction. I spent the mornings running either through the city and along the major river of Miljacka, or up into the mountains overlooking the city. The food is excellent and we were warmly welcomed everywhere, from restaurants to museums. Their art and design is sophisticated and refined, and their sunsets highlight the beautiful natural surroundings every evening. This city is slowly getting discovered- it’s still quite inexpensive for all the modern offerings provided (skiing, white water rafting, hiking, art exhibits, galleries, the old city and new city experience, a business start-up scene, and, what we came to discover, pigeon square). It’s a great place to visit and I hope to come back someday… perhaps in the summer next time.
See the gallery of photos below of Sarajevo…