This is the third story in a mini-series called The Month of Eight Countries, which is about the countries Bruno and I are visiting this month as part of our 4,000km overland transit between Turkey and France. The first two instalments of the series were on Bulgaria and Serbia.
“Sarajevo changed my mind.”
– Lyrics from the song “Bosnia” by the Cranberries
I’d heard of the war in Bosnia before I could even locate the country on a world map. I remember listening to the Cranberries’ newest album “To the Faithful Departed” with my ear glued to the boom box in my bedroom as a twelve-year-old. My mom didn’t approve of my musical choice so I couldn’t exactly ask her what had happened in Sarajevo that made the singer cry with such intense agony.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina nineteen years later, Bruno and I drove through tunnels that cut through mountains, a turquoise river running parallel to our route. We visited the town of Jajce, where we wandered around Roman ruins and catacombs, compared Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture, viewed the fortified town from the top of a medieval castle, and cooled-off in the spray of a waterfall.
But for me, our six days in Bosnia and Herzegovina were all about Sarajevo.
As soon as we hopped onto the old tram that took us on a very rickety ride into the center of town, I knew Sarajevo wasn’t like other European capitals. As many women were covered in head scarves here as in Turkey. The tram had to stop at least once so that loitering men could vacate the tracks. And when we pushed our way off the tram in the center of town, there were no discernable sites. A muddy river and some graffiti and bullet-holes on the façade of a dull brown building were what greeted us.
We had come downtown to take part in a free walking tour I’d read about. For some reason – probably that Cranberries’ song, and maybe as a result of our lack of preparation in Serbia – I felt an urge to learn as much as possible about what had gone on in Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, and a walking tour felt like the best way to start.
It was. Our guide, Merima, was knowledgeable and demonstrated a clear passion for her city’s history, culture, and architecture. She took us past several of Sarajevo’s important sites and explained different periods of the city’s history that helped me make sense of some of the things I’d been reading.
Bosnia, like elsewhere in the region, was long part of the Ottoman Empire; unlike the surrounding countries, however, Bosnians wholeheartedly adopted Islam. Sarajevo has hundreds of mosques competing for the sky to prove it. When the Turks left, the Austro-Hungarians took over, and left their architectural mark – grand symmetrical, multi-windowed buildings and towering churches.
Bosnia is a sort of crossroads between East and West. There’s even a street you can stand on where, if you look one way, you think you’re in Western Europe, and if you look the other, you’d swear you were in the Middle East. And because Bosnia has always been a crossroads, it has always been a melting pot of ethnicities.
For a long time, these groups lived together in peace. The primarily Muslim Bosniaks, the Orthodox Serbs, and the Catholic Croats shared the land as brothers – they were all Slavs, after all, and lived in a country now called Yugoslavia. The Eternal Flame Monument was erected on the main street of Sarajevo as a testimonial of this unity and peace.
It was when Yugoslavia began to break down with the death of Tito and the rise of Nationalism that that ever-fragile balance of peace was tilted. Power was concentrating in Belgrade in the hands of the Serbs, and with such a vastly scattered Serbian population, the idea of having separate countries like Croatia and Bosnia ruled by non-Serbs was intolerable. If Bosniaks wanted to rule themselves, then war it was.
As war rained down on Bosnia, the Eternal Flame was extinguished. It wasn’t done to snub the Serbs – it was that Sarajevo was under siege and had no gas with which to keep the flame lit. The siege of Sarajevo lasted over 1,400 days (from 1992 – 95) and was the longest siege in history.
So that’s what the Cranberries were singing about when they cried Sarajevo over and over like a mantra.
Merima hadn’t been living in Sarajevo at the time of the siege, but in a nearby town that had been also been under siege due to its location at the bottom of a valley. She was seven when she heard the first shells explode; henceforth, they exploded every day from 10am – 2am for four years. She spent most of her youth hiding in the basement of a neighbour, along with seven other families. They ate US-donated canned food that had been created in the Second World War. They went to school every morning, running – always running – to a “safe” location in the early morning and returning home before the first bombs. School was what kept Merima sane, connected to life outdoors and outside of her tiny, besieged world.
As Merima walked us through the town and recounted her experiences and the history of her country, she’d often say it is what it is. When she showed us the corner from which Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, starting WWI, she said it is what it is. When she talked about the irony of the Eternal Flame being a symbol of the unity of Slavs only fifty years before they tore one another apart, she said it is what it is. When she talked about the famous bombing at the Pijaca Market, where sixty-six civilians were killed, and how the next day the market opened as usual, she said it is what it is.
It seemed to me that Merima’s attitude showed resignation, but also resilience. She, like the people who turned up the next morning at the Pijaca Market, had accepted their reality, and continued to live on, even in the face of death. I saw more evidence of this quality the next day at Sarajevo’s Historical Museum. The museum wasn’t much, but it did have advertisements and news clippings of art exhibits, music festivals, beauty pageants, and theater performances that occurred between 1992-5, in the midst of a siege. If we’re going to be under siege, the posters seemed to say, we may as well enjoy it.
Perhaps the best example of this resilience, though, was at the Tunnel Museum. Because most of the arms had been concentrated in Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital, the Bosniaks had very little with which to defend their city during the siege of Sarajevo. They managed to dig an 800m tunnel under the airport (occupied by the UN) that linked besieged Sarajevo to free land. Through that tunnel, food and weapons (mostly weapons) were smuggled into the city. At the museum you can walk – bent down – through a symbolic twenty-five meters that most locals believe to be their city’s saving-grace. Bosniaks call it the Tunnel of Life.
After our walking tour, Bruno and I wandered through the Turkish Quarter, Bascarsija, with its cobbled streets, mosques, and Turkish tea houses. We sat at cafés, sampled syrupy sweets, and watched colorfully-dressed, well-covered people go by. I sat and marvelled at the normal things the locals were doing – shopping, going to the mosque, drinking coffee, smoking nargile, playing lifesize chess in town squares, gossiping and laughing. It almost seemed as though a war had never touched these streets.
I couldn’t shake the feeling, though, that there were ghosts around every corner. It was eerie. On almost every building there were bullet holes. We’d turn a corner and run into another Sarajevo Rose, a red splotch on the ground symbolising a bomb explosion. I couldn’t even shake the eerie feeling when Bruno and I went mountain biking in the green hills overlooking Sarajevo. I just kept thinking that it was from here that the Serbs mounted their siege.
Bosnia is really still recovering from its war. Merima said it best when she spat off Bosnia’s unemployment statistics – 45% of the general population, and 65% of young people. Only one out of each three of her friends has a job. Most of those jobs aren’t even in the field in which they studied, but after a year or so of looking for a “good” job, they’d accepted the waitress gig, or the tour guide job.
Yet, even those that couldn’t find work could find one CM (Convertible Mark) a day for a cup of coffee. Because for that Mark, they got so much more than that – they got a chance to gossip with friends, a ticket to loiter at a café table for endless hours, and the opportunity to play the who’s got it worse game. Bosniaks love to complain about their lives, and do it nonstop, adding just the right amount of humor and sarcasm so as not to be a real downer. I don’t know what people have to complain about twenty years after the end of the siege, but maybe that was the true scar of war.
The Bosnian War ended in 1995 when the world finally woke up. In eastern Bosnia, the town of Srebrenica, which had been declared a safe zone for Muslim refugees, was attacked by the Bosnian Serbs. In a matter of a few days, thousands of Muslims were captured, executed, and buried in the hills surrounding the town. After four years of ethnic cleansing, massacres, rape and violence, it took a genocide to end the war.
It is only in recent years that the invisible wounds of war are starting to heal. The wonderful Galerija 11/07/95 in Sarajevo highlights the mass uncovering of graves in the hills of Srebrenica, the proper burials being given, and the DNA tests being conducted so family members can locate their deceased loved-ones. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) captured its last suspects a couple of years ago, and is winding down all its cases. The perpetrators are seeing justice, and the victims are getting closure. At least in Bosnia.
Because the Balkan Wars aren’t really over. In Bosnia, 49% of the country is a semi-independent republic ruled by Serbs. Bosniaks are still surrounded by people who want nothing to do with them. In nearby Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians are still struggling to convince the world that they, too, deserve independence. And tension continues to rise in Macedonia, a sign from the Albanian minority that they’re still not happy with their representation in government.
The Balkan region is a ticking time bomb. The question is, will the bomb explode or will it, like all the land mines still being found in the Bosnian countryside, be deactivated before anyone else gets hurt?