Sarajevo City Hall from the Yellow Fortress
With 24 hours’ notice, AFAR sent writer Michael Clinton to the reborn capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina 20 years after a siege that broke the world’s heart.
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Before I arrived in Sarajevo, the 555-year-old capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, I had no impression of the city beyond the televised atrocities I had seen in the early 1990s. In 1992, the country, once part of Yugoslavia, voted to become independent. Just over a month later, Serbian forces began a siege of Sarajevo that lasted 1,425 days, shelling the city relentlessly. Eventually, NATO air strikes forced the Serbs to negotiate, and the Dayton Accords brought an end to the violence in 1995. Twenty years later, a whole generation has no memory of those difficult times, yet the past lies just beneath the surface of people’s lives.
Most visitors to the city spend much of their time in Baščaršija, the old Turkish quarter filled with mosques, antique stores, shops, restaurants, and shisha bars where young people smoke flavored tobacco from communal hookahs. The neighborhood bustles with energy and laughter, and I found myself returning frequently to people-watch, to grab another addictive syrniki (a cheese-filled pastry) at the Pekara Imaret bakery, and to partake in perhaps the most Sarajevan of activities: drinking coffee.
Sarajevo was the first European city to have coffeehouses, due to its Turkish influence, and there are many types to choose from. I made it a point to go to classics like Caffe Von Habsburg and funky ones like Caffe Tito. I listened in on conversations and chatted up some of the locals. There were students and businessmen and shopkeepers, and they were all happy to speak to me about their city, each suggesting a place that was not to be missed. At one stop, Samra, a young woman who works as a guide and translator, told me about razgovoruša, the “conversation coffee” with family, friends, or coworkers that starts each day. Some people drink traditional Turkish coffee, while others opt for cappuccinos or lattes. Whatever they sip, everyone sips something. But even as Samra and I chatted about this ritual, the barbarity of the past was close at hand. Samra lost her father in the war.
A whole generation has no memory of those difficult times, yet the past lies just beneath the surface of people’s lives.
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More than a dozen bridges stretch across the Miljacka River as it flows through Sarajevo, and each has a story to tell. The Latin Bridge is where Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in 1914, the act that sparked World War I. The Suada and Olga Bridge takes its name from two of the first victims of the Siege of Sarajevo, killed by Serbian snipers at a peace demonstration. The Festina Lente footbridge, completed in 2012, clues you in to the best way to experience the city. Its design is simple but ingenious. Halfway across the river, the span forms a loop in the air before continuing to the other side. The loop shelters two wooden benches, inviting you to pause for a moment during your travels through the city. The bridge’s name is Latin for “make haste, slowly.”
When you step out of the Turkish quarter’s tightly packed streets, the city’s architectural character changes dramatically. In 1878, the Austro-Hungarian empire conquered this part of the world and ruled for 40 years, putting its imprint on Sarajevo. Grand buildings such as the national theater, the central post office, and the ornate Academy of Fine Arts line wide, busy avenues. I admired the exquisite brickwork and arched facade of the Moorish-influenced town hall, opened in 1896, which once housed the national library of Bosnia-Herzegovina. This, too, served as a reminder of the past. In August of 1992, Serbian mortars destroyed the building, which held nearly 2 million books, periodicals, and documents, many of them irreplaceable. The building I was looking at was a restoration completed in 2014. A commemorative plaque read, DO NOT FORGET. REMEMBER AND WARN.
Not far from city hall, I walked through Sarajevo’s main food market and picked up some fruit. The market was bombed in 1994 and 68 people died, an event that seemed to galvanize world opinion: Something had to be done. NATO air strikes soon intensified. Today, the market is thriving, but I wondered what it must have been like on that fateful day.
An acquaintance had connected me with his friend Dino, who lived through the siege as a teenager and, now in his 40s, still resides in the city. We met up several times during my trip, first at the bustling City Pub, where we had a few beers from Sarajevska Pivara, one of the oldest breweries in the city. He told me how tough life had been during the war, how citizens had to avoid “sniper alley,” a stretch of the city’s main boulevard where people couldn’t walk without risk of being shot. There was no public transit, water, gas, or electricity. “People were faced with death every day,” he said, “as they attempted to create normal lives at work and school.” He took me high into the hills to Caffe Kamarija, a restaurant with sweeping views of the city below, and drove me around the neighborhood where he had lived as a child, pointing out schools he attended, shops, and the steep streets where he rode sleds in the winter. I watched kids play and women shop for groceries. It occurred to me that when Dino was a child, life was normal for him, too—and then it all changed. Now he is raising two children, and, like any parent, he hopes that they will lead prosperous lives.
To ignore the recent past is to ignore the heart and soul of the city and the courage of its people.
There are subtle reminders of the war wherever you go: bullet holes in buildings; “Sarajevo roses,” spots on streets and sidewalks that have been filled with red resin to mark places where people were killed. But there are also formal memorials and museums. The one that moved me most deeply was the Tunnel Museum. During the war, the Bosnian Army shoveled out a tunnel to link the city center with a Bosnian-held neighborhood near the Sarajevo airport. It became the lifeline to the city, allowing food and supplies to reach the residents under siege. The museum itself is a nondescript private house that served as an access point to the tunnel. There, I watched a short film that showed how the tunnel was used. I went down into the basement, where I crawled through a small entrance into a section of the tunnel that has been preserved. Though it was quiet the day I visited, I could only imagine the amount of anxious activity that had taken place there in the effort to sustain a strangled city.
I made another heart-wrenching stop at Gallery 11/07/95 to see an exhibition that tells the story of the horrific act of genocide in the village of Srebrenica, less than three hours from Sarajevo, where Serbian forces massacred more than 8,000 Muslims and buried them in mass graves. Today, families are still uncovering and identifying lost loved ones. It wasn’t until 2016 that Radovan Karadžić, the former president of Serbia, was sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment for this and other crimes against humanity. I spent hours at the gallery, often in tears, as I watched videos and other reminders of the all-too-recent atrocity.
What I realized is when you come to Sarajevo, you have to embrace the story of the war years: It is unavoidable. The city is a jewel of an experience, vibrant and welcoming, a getaway from the well-traveled European capitals. No matter where I went, everyone was friendly and happy to see someone from the United States visit their country. But to ignore the recent past is to ignore the heart and soul of the city and the courage of its people. Nermin, whom I booked as a guide, served as a police officer during the war. “By talking about it to foreigners, I continue to get the full story out, and it acts as a kind of therapy for me,” he said. Even during the toughest of times, he never considered leaving his city. He is proud of its heritage of tolerance, that for centuries people of different faiths and ethnicities have lived in harmony. “Nothing,” he said, “can kill the soul of the people from Sarajevo.”
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