Sept. 28-29, 2015:
This post covers the two days we spent in Sarajevo, which is both profoundly troubling and incredibly charming. However, the legacy of the wars of independence is still felt on a daily basis, and shape a great deal of Bosnian life. I will finish the exploration of those wars in this post. Nonetheless, I highly recommend a visit to this city which still has a lot to offer in terms of culture, cuisine, and history.
Our exploration of Sarajevo began with a walking tour of the older parts of the city. Right outside our hotel are the stone ruins of a han which is kind of like a medieval hostel with a bif social area in the center called a caravanserai. Beginning in the 14th century, when the Ottoman Turks took over, Sarajevo became a huge trading center joining West and East, which was second in size only to Istanbul. Our hotel is located at the edge of the old Turkish quarter of Sarajevo called the Baščarśija (pronounced bar shar shia).
We walked a couple of blocks and came to the bridge which was the site of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sofia, in 1914; the so-called shot heard round the world which ignited World War I.
The architecture here is very interesting in that you have the influences from the Ottoman Empire, overlaid with the architecture from the Austro-Hungarian era (Osman style), interspersed with modern office buildings and apartments, mostly dating from the Post World War II period, when Bosnia became a fairly significant industrial power (producing cars, manufacturing, mining, timber and hydroelectric power production.
In fact, before the war for independence, Bosnia was able to export electricity to other countries in Europe. We walked along the river and saw the beautiful town hall building constructed during the Austro-Hungarian period. This building was bombed and burned during the war, but has now been restored.
From the river, we could see the brewery for Sarajevič beer, which has been producing beer since 1864.
This fact is just one example of the many contrasts which is Sarajevo, where a majority Muslim town can have a huge brewery in operation without any issue. In fact, some of the locals told us that prior to the war, most of the Muslim women did not even wear head scarves, and many of the Muslim Bosnians (called Bosniaks) would drink beer and wine. Today, the observant Bosniaks who still live in Sarajevo do wear headscarves more frequently, but most of them still wear fashionable European style clothing.
We then entered the Barcarsija area, and it was like entering a charming medieval village. The streets are lined with cobblestones, and there are low tables and benches or stools with lovely cushions outside every café and restaurant.
The streets are organized by the tradesmen who populated each lane. All around us are scarves of bright silks and pashminas, with examples of the many lovely crafts produced in this region.
We set off for the Coppersmiths’ Street, where we observed a local artisan plying his trade.
Bosnia has had metal workers since Roman times, and the artisans here produce beautiful Byzantine pieces of jewelry and household wares like trays, coffee sets and vases. In fact, there are so many pieces of artillery lying around Sarajevo, the local coppersmiths have taken to making pieces out of bullets and spent mortar shells. This is king of the ultimate case of making good our of bad: bombshells to bouquets; bullets to blossoms.
Jim and I bought a vase decorated with beautiful ancient patterns which look like they dated back to Roman times.
Our next stop in the old quarter was at a mosque, the Gazi Husrev Bey Mosque. I had never been in a mosque before, but this one is open to the public at all times except when religious services are being conducted (5 times a day).
In a sign of how closely knit Bosnian society was before the war, there is a large Catholic Cathedral, Orthodox Church and Jewish synagogue which are all almost in the same block as the mosque and had peacefully coexisted there for centuries.
Notably, Bosniak families helped to shield their Jewish neighbors from persecution during WWII. I was really taken by the simplicity and elegance of the inside of the mosque, and once again, felt completely welcome there even though I had to put on a head scarf (much like I’ve had to do in old Catholic churches elsewhere in Europe).
Our tour of the old town concluded with a visit to the food halls, where numerous local farmers sell their smoked meats a farm cheese. We stopped to sample some local cheese. Jim and I like the one which is fixed with bell peppers (called paprika) best.
From the square outside the food hall, we can see the large Eastern Orthodox church in the center of the old town.
During the war, the Bosnian Serb forces did not target any Orthodox churches, although some of them suffered from some stray shrapnel fire. By contrast, although all of the Balkan region had long treated churches of all faiths as places of sanctuary, in this war, Catholic churches and Muslim mosques were actively targeted as sites which would result in the highest number of casualties. Schools were similarly targeted.
Also, people play chess outdoors on large public chessboards. From where we were standing outside the food hall, we observed this game progress.
We had lunch in another great local restaurant called Aeroplan, where we enjoyed more local specialties, including a thick chicken stew with peppers, and a veal stew served with rice and mushrooms that was somewhat similar to a Hungarian goulash.
After lunch, we walked to a local Museum, which has a permanent exhibit about the ethnic cleansing campaign carried on by the Serbians in a town at the far east of Bosnia called Srebrenica targeted for the express purpose of causing the highest civilian casualties possible. In order to explain the impact of this exhibit, I’m going to have to explain some more about the political situation in Bosnia and Serbia immediately before and during the war for independence.
I have tried to keep a balanced approach to what I’m reporting, but my conclusion is that there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for what was done to the Bosnian people in general, and the Bosniaks specifically. They did not attack any other party in this war, they did not carry out their own historical program of ethnic cleansing, and they did not discriminate or persecute any other ethnic minority in their country. Try as I might, I cannot believe anything other than the fact that the Serbians, under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, and carried out by numerous other national and ethnic Serbs were the aggressors in this war who pursued a documented campaign of ethnic “cleansing and genocide mostly against the Bosniaks, but also against the Croatians. However, don’t take my word for it: do your own research, and get the views of the Bosnians, Croatians and Serbians who lived (and survived) this horrible war.
As we reported before, in the late 1980s, Slobodan Milosević engaged in an aggressive campaign of nationalism, telling Bosnian Serbs and Croatian Serbs and Serbians that the governments of the other countries with Serbian populations that those were planning to deprive their Serbian populations of their rights and possibly with their lives. Because of the history of Croatia doing this during WWII, he was able to rekindle a spark of fear among the Serbians and to get them to mobilize. Also, because the capital of the Yugoslav Republic was in Belgrade, Serbia, and because Milosević held the rotating presidency of the Yugoslav Republic at that time, he had all the weapons and soldiers of the Republic at his command. Because of fears that the Serbs were pursuing a campaign of aggression against the other Yugoslav republics, Slovenia (and Croatia) decided to declare independence in June, 1991. Slovenia had no ethnic Serbs and was not strategically important, and because it had almost no Serbian population, was able to ward off an invasion by the Serb-dominated People’s Army of Yugoslavia.
Croatia was in a different place than Slovenia because of its lengthy coastline, industrial complex and many military bases. Also, many Serbs (with a strong tradition of blood feuds) still held a grudge against Croatia because of the atrocities committed by the Ustaśe forces during WWII. After Croatia declared independence, The Yugoslav People’s Army moved aggressively, purportedly to put down the rebellion, but began annexing land in central Croatia, and along the border with Bosnia in the area called Krajina, establishing the so-called independent Republic of Serbian Krajina. As the Serbs advanced into contested areas of Croatia, hundreds of thousands of Croatians fled those areas and took refuge along the Dalmatian coast, especially in Dubrovnik. Many of those who remained disappeared and became victims of ethnic cleansing. (Yes, you are right: this is a conflict between one Christian group and another!) In October, 1991, the Serbians bombed Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and the palace of Croatia’s president, Franjo Tudzman, trying to assassinate him. As I have already told you, Serbia was able to enlist the help of Montenegro to attack Croatia by labeling them traitors and by fanning fears about another campaign against ethnic Serbians in Croatia and Montenegro. The result was the siege of Dubrovnik, which began in December, 1991.
There was a slightly different situation in Bosnia. Because Bosnia had a more ethnically diverse population (about 43% Muslim, 31% Serbian, and 17% Croatian), the Muslim president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegović, called for a referendum vote on whether Bosnia should declare its independence. Although the action of calling for the vote was supported by the vast majority of Bosniaks and ethnic Croatians, the Serbian Bosnians rejected it.
In the fall of 1991, ethnic Serbians in Bosnia formed their own “state” within the republic of Bosnia called the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia-Herzogovina with Radovan Karadžić as its president. As the referendum on the issue of Bosnian independence neared in the spring of 1992, the Serbians started attacking villages and towns along the eastern border of Bosnia, and the campaign of ethnic cleansing began. Radovan Karadžić’s forces were supported by Serbian troops and they targeted predominantly Muslim towns in that area. As with other areas in Bosnia, before attacks would take place, the Serbians secretly warned the ethnic Serbian members of those communities so they could leave before the fighting started. The referendum vote overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence.
Finally in April, 1992, there was a huge protest march in Sarajevo (about 100,000 people in a town with a total population of about 800,000). The march was peaceful but Radovan Karadžić was meeting in the Holiday Inn with representatives from the city of Sarajevo. Karadžić ordered his snipers to take up positions on top of that hotel, and he gave the order to fire on the crowds, killing two innocent young women and four others.
All were unarmed. Karadžić fled into the hills surrounding Sarajevo, and on May 2, 1992, the coordinated Serbian attack on Sarajevo began, and the entire city was quickly encircled with the exception of one mountain pass, which set up the conditions for the siege of Sarajevo. That siege was the longest in modern history, lasting over three and half years. One fact to keep in mind was that even during the siege, Bosnians of all faith and cultures continued to work and live and fight together. Although many ethnic Serbians evacuated the city before the siege began, it is important to know that about 25% of the Serbian population remained during the siege, fighting and suffering with their Bosniak neighbors.
In the light of all this death and destruction, you might imagine that the Bosnian people are a dour lot. However, this is not the case. Let me give you a few examples about the indomitable and plucky Bosnian spirit: 1. Right before the Siege of Sarajevo, someone scrawled graffiti on the side of the main post office in Sarajevo stating, ”This is Serbia!” The next day, someone had replied with his own message, which read: “No, you idiot! This is the post office!” 2. In 1993, in the deepest part of the siege, the city of Sarajevo hosted a beauty contest to crown Miss Sarajevo, which caught the attention of the international press, and at the end of the pageant, the contestants all got up on stage with a banner which read “Don’t let them kill us”. This was captured in a documentary by Bill Carter entitled “Miss Sarajevo” and a U2 song of the same title; and 3. On the day which the siege in Sarajevo officially passed the length of the siege of St. Petersburg/Stalingrad during WWII, the only working radio station in Sarajevo broadcast the song We are the Champions by Queen all day long.
Now, about the Srebrenica exhibit: The Serbian attack on Srebrenica, which took place over the 4 day period between July 11-15, 1995, killed over 8,000 known victims. The total number is unknown because most of the victims were buried in mass graves, which were dug up and re-buried by the Serbs. The Serbian forces under the command of Radko Mladić marched into the town, which was purportedly under the protection of Dutch UN peacekeeping troops, took every male between the ages of 12 and 77, and removed them to killing camps. This exhibit is completely gut-wrenching, and shockingly graphic. Because Srebrenica had been declared a UN safe zone, thousands of refugees had fled into this area which concentrated the total number of victims. Intercepted communications among Milosević, Karadžić, and Mladić detail express orders to kill the maximum number of Muslims possible. This horrific massacre was finally the tipping point to impel NATO to begin bombing Serbian positions in Bosnia which finally broke the siege of Sarajevo and forced the Serbians to the negotiating table which resulted in the peace agreement known as the Dayton accords, brokered by the United States.
After viewing this exhibit, we were emotionally devastated, and returned to our room to have a cocktail, and re-group ourselves for our home-hosted dinner at the apartment of a typical Bosniak family.
Our hostess, Alma, like many of the Bosniak women we met, was blond and blue eyed, and incredibly warm, funny and welcoming! The story of Alma’s family is not unlike that of many Bosniaks during the war. They lived in a town just a few miles away from Sarajevo. Before the war, Alma’s father was a policeman and got called up to enroll in the Yugoslav army. Serbs invaded their town and the rest of Alma’s family fled, leaving most of their belongings behind because they couldn’t really believe the war would last very long, and after all, the Serbians were their friends and neighbors. Finally, they had to go to a refugee camp in Hungary where they lived for several months. The whole family finally moved to Germany where they lived for the rest of the war. When they came back to Bosnia after the war, there were still Serbians living in their home, and they never got it back. Instead, the whole family moved into a two bedroom apartment in Sarajevo owned by Alma’s great aunt, which was the apartment where we visited. Like most of the buildings in downtown Sarajevo, it was damaged during the war, but in this case, it had been repaired. The meal prepared for us was very tasty, consisting of a good vegetable based soup, and then a main dish of stuffed peppers and dolmas with mashed potatoes. The dessert was a baklava pastry. Yum! Finally, we returned to our hotel to prepare for another full day tomorrow.
Tuesday morning began with a trip slightly outside the city to see the Tunnel of Hope, which was an underground tunnel secretly constructed during the war to supply the besieged Sarajevans during the war. However, before we got to the Tunnel, we passed through Sarajevo’s central city which is laid out like a wide- flat alley. Not only is the Holiday Inn located here, but the throroughfare became infamously known as Snipers’ Alley because Bosnian troops would sit on the hillsides surrounding the town and pick off civilians.
One of the hardest things with which to mentally deal is the fact that much of Sarajevo and all of Bosnia is still visibly scarred by signs of the war. You can hardly drive one block without seeing buildings which are still bullet-ridden, and empty husks of structures which were bombed. You really can’t escape seeing these sites anywhere in Sarajevo, which we found to be an oppressive force.
The tunnel was constructed by 4 former coal mining engineers and was barely 3 feet wide by about 4 ½ feet high. It was completed in 1993, and by that time, the people of Sarajevo were in very bad shape. There was no water or electricity or gas, and most of the trees in Sarajevo which were not in open areas subject to sniper fire were cut down for firewood during the war. Many have been replanted, but they are tiny in comparison to their former stately predecessors. As you can see from the map. Sarajevo was completely surrounded by Serbians with the exception of a narrow area where the airport was located at the foot of Igman Mountain. The tunnel was constructed under the runway of the airport. Although the Serbians figured out that there must have been a tunnel, and repeatedly bombed trying to find its location, it remained a secret all during the war. The tunnel museum was very interesting even though you are only able to access a short part of the tunnel. However, that was enough to give most of the members of our group a serious case of claustrophobia. Interestingly. The UN declared the airport a non-combat zone early in the siege, and it was used only to bring food supplies in. However, all Bosnians we talked to reported going hungry at many times during the siege, and the UN served food rations which dated back to WWII. Even worse, as some citizens used the airport at night as the only clear passage out of Sarajevo, many people reported that the UN forces controlling the airport started lighting the runways at night, which allowed the Serbian snipers to pick off anyone trying to escape.
Map of how the tunnel ran relative to the airport
We then went back to town, and went to the Bosnian national museum which holds some fabulous archaeological pieces excavated from different parts of Bosnia, several of them dating back to the Roman period. I marveled to see patterns reflected in some of the stone carvings which looked like the hammered copper patterns we saw in the Coppersmiths Alley. This museum complex is also home to a natural history museum, with a fine collection of stuffed animals, and an ethnographic museum.
Following this exhausting morning: Mark, Kathy, Jim and I voted for lunch at the historic Sarajevska brewery. Kathy and I then spent our afternoon exploring the finer arts for sale in the Barčaršija.
Our final day in Sarajevo concluded with a lecture by a Sarajevan native who lived through the siege. He later was employed by the UN High Commission on Refugees, and had some interesting and controversial viewpoints, including his assertion that one of the worst things to happen to Bosnia was the Dayton Accords, because although they stopped the war, they have had the effect of preserving a completely unworkable society where majority rule and democratic processes cannot prevail. In his view, the Dayton Accords have prevented the enactment of a Bosnian Constitution, and in the absence of further diplomatic intervention, Bosnia seems doomed to keep stumbling along in permanent lockstep to the minority wishes of their Serbian citizens.
On that cheery note, we went to dinner again in the Turkish quarter at Nanina’s Kuhinja (Grandma’s Kitchen), where we feasted on Bosnian specialties until we pleaded for mercy. Have I mentioned that the food is REALLY great in Bosnia?!!!!
Tomorrow, we return to Croatia. Although we have been emotionally disturbed by our visit here, I have a feeling that as much as I like the other parts of the Balkans, my mind and heart will continue to return to Bosnia. I urge you all to come to Bosnia, form your own opinions, but above all, enjoy this fascinating country!